Climate change offers US and China a chance to cooperate. Will they take it?

Rachel Zhang
·5-min read

China could offer to transfer technology and give financial help to poor countries in a joint effort to fight climate change with the US, Chinese observers have said.

Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden has made the fight against climate change one of his major priorities and is reportedly planning to host world leaders in a climate summit on Earth Day on April 22. The summit is also seen as a chance for China and the US to cooperate following the Donald Trump era.

Beijing is willing to attend a summit on climate change if invited by the US and will take the opportunity to improve relations with the US and portray itself as a responsible player, observers said, but they believe it may be challenged to take more action to cut emissions.

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“China can make concrete commitments at the summit, pledging to become carbon neutral by 2060, to transfer environmental protection technology – even freely sharing with nations lagging behind – and jointly allocate funds and resources with the US to help poor countries with carbon reduction and assist those already affected by climate change,” said Song Luzheng, an international relations researcher at Fudan University.

China announced in September that it aimed to reach peak emissions by 2035 and to become carbon neutral by 2060. However, it has not yet released detailed plans, and may need global cooperation and a technological breakthrough to succeed.

Song said China also wants the US and EU to share their advanced green technology, and is willing to pay for it, but their reluctance to do so “is selfish and contradictory”.

Biden is expected to issue more executive orders on climate policy later this week. During the election campaign last year, he also pledged to invest US$2 trillion in clean energy to create carbon-free electricity by 2035 and become carbon neutral by 2050.

The US has also rejoined the Paris Agreement, which Trump pulled out of, and this decision plus Biden’s plans for a climate summit could see the US taking a lead role in tackling climate change.

Xi carbon pledge raises questions over whether China is moving far enough

Song said Washington’s commitments “can’t just be verbal” and it remains unclear whether the US commitment to carbon neutrality can surpass that of European countries and how much it can offer financially to help small countries to cope with climate change.

Wang Yiwei, a professor on international relations with Renmin University, said that China’s transition to a green mode of economic growth would help reduce carbon emissions, but it would take time.

He also said China would face growing calls to take more global responsibility.

“Many countries no longer regard China as a developing country, and thus expect China to not only reduce carbon emissions at home, but also provide funds and technology to help other developing countries to cut emissions,” said Wang.

“But according to the UN’s human development index, China is still a developing country. Denying this is a violation of the rule-based international order.”

Zhou Yongsheng, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said China is willing to take this opportunity to improve its relations with the US.

China nudges up its commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions

“Although China will primarily speak on behalf of developing countries, it also considers itself a big power that should bear more responsibility for reducing carbon emissions than ordinary developing countries. Meanwhile, world leaders are not likely to announce new pledges for carbon neutrality,” said Zhou.

John Kerry, Biden’s special climate envoy, said last week that China’s commitment was “not good enough”, urging Beijing to make further promises to cut emissions. Biden has also criticised China for “outsourcing” pollution to other countries through infrastructure projects built under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Song said Beijing may be cautious about discussing details of its own targets at the summit since the significance of the issue extends to the geopolitical rivalry with the US.

He said the carbon neutral plan would also offer China “significant diplomatic leverage” in negotiations with the West in the future and it will “play its best card” carefully.

“The pledge also covers a long time span, during which it’s full of uncertainties. It’s hard to come up with a detailed plan for now. Besides, China is also struggling to climb out of the economic morass caused by Covid-19. Seeing emissions reduction as a top priority is unrealistic,” Song added.

EU proposes green alliance with US, signalling less reliance on China

“China is willing to cooperate, but what China wants the most is not a US commitment to carbon neutrality, but in other areas of Sino-US relations, such as the trade war and technological confrontation, as well as the Taiwan issue,” said Song.

Biden’s administration has said it will work with US allies to stop China’s “economic abuses on many fronts”. The White House has also said it will take a “patient” approach and that Biden will evaluate the tariffs imposed by predecessor before making any decision.

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