Where U.S.-China Competition Leaves Climate Change

Just because the two powers have every reason to cooperate on the issue doesn’t mean they will.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden side by side
Alex Brandon / AP

The latest round of international negotiations on climate change, which concluded on Sunday, achieved a significant breakthrough by creating a fund to compensate poor countries for damage caused by global warming. But the two weeks of intense haggling at COP27, this year’s United Nations climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, may focus the attention of the climate-activist community on the United States and China more than ever. The summit left unresolved some of the thorniest issues, including how exactly the new fund will work, and many experts believe that the progress necessary to repair a warming world will be extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, without close collaboration between these two great powers.

Lately, that cooperation has fallen victim to souring U.S.-China relations. Beijing suspended bilateral dialogue with Washington on climate in August, and talks were not resumed until midway through COP27 in a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last week.

Some fears may now be soothed. But the episode confirms the precariousness of the U.S.-China relationship—and, even more, the dangers of relying on continued goodwill between the two countries to solve global problems. In the past, breakthroughs in cooperation of the world’s two largest economies (and greenhouse-gas emitters) have invigorated international efforts to tackle the climate challenge. A pact to reduce emissions that the pair reached in 2014 paved the way for the historic Paris Agreement a year later. Without renewed impetus, some experts worry, the UN-backed process could drift and founder.

“This is a new challenge that we need to deal with,” Li Shuo, a senior global-policy adviser for Greenpeace in Beijing, told me: “How do we adjust to the fact that the two biggest powers in the world will, like it or not, compete or even confront each other … but at the same time, there are issues that require their alignment, or at least their engagement … For a long time, we didn’t have to deal with this dichotomy.”

After watching the events at COP27, “I believe even more firmly that U.S.-China engagement is key for climate progress,” Li added. “Without that, the multilateral process will be paralyzed.”

The conundrum is also a huge test for U.S. foreign policy and strikes directly at its greatest contradiction: Washington must protect U.S. national interests from an adversarial China and yet collaborate with Beijing on matters of crucial importance to the country and the world. Much depends on the attitude in Beijing. China’s leaders find themselves in the same fix—compelled to push back against American global power even as they remain dependent on that power to achieve their own national goals. In that sense, tackling the climate crisis will be a test of China’s new role in the world, and what its leaders wish that role to be.

President Joe Biden has tried to insulate climate from issues of greater contention in the U.S.-China relationship, such as human rights, technology, and Taiwan. And he’s had some success. A year ago, Washington and Beijing surprised the climate-activist community by presenting a joint pledge to accelerate their efforts on climate, giving the previous UN summit—held in Glasgow, Scotland—a major boost.

Recently, though, China’s leaders have tied their continued collaboration on climate more tightly to concessions from Washington on other sensitive issues, most of all on Taiwan. Beijing called off high-level climate talks with Washington in August in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, which the Communist government believed undermined the idea of “one China.” (Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China.) The U.S. government “is very selective,” Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser at the Institute of Energy at China’s Peking University, told me. “You think, ‘On this issue I would like to work with you, but on that issue I don’t like to work with you.’ The Chinese government says, ‘If you have this kind of attitude, forget it’ … We think we have to work together in an integrated, friendly approach.”

Some climate advocates in Washington have worried for some time that the planet would be sacrificed to superpower competition. Bernie Sanders, the progressive senator from Vermont, had climate change in mind when he warned last year that it was “distressing and dangerous” that a “consensus is emerging in Washington that views the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a zero-sum economic and military struggle.” This, he foresaw, would “create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult.” John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate, has persistently stressed the importance of China to U.S. climate policy. Climate “is the one area that should not be subject to interruption because of other issues that do affect us,” he said in the aftermath of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.

This perspective reflects a questionable assumption: that China’s policies are mainly a response to U.S. policies. Yet on many, perhaps most, issues, Chinese leaders have their own agenda, grounded in domestic priorities and strategic calculations, which are largely distinct from its relations with Washington. Climate could well be one of them. “I’m not sure that the Chinese themselves think they need to cooperate with the U.S. to manage climate risk,” Erin Sikorsky, the director of the Center for Climate and Security at the Council on Strategic Risks, told me. “I don’t think that when it comes to climate policy, the U.S. position is really going to drive Chinese behavior.”

Beijing has set a domestic target for the country to attain carbon neutrality before 2060, and there are good reasons to believe the leadership takes meeting this goal very seriously. Self-interest is at work. China has an atrocious urban air-pollution problem, which, though improved in recent years, could benefit from reduced use of fossil fuels. Economically, Beijing has long seen new green technologies as a pillar of China’s future, and the government has actively supported the development of solar panels, electric vehicles, and other eco-friendly sectors.

Employing such technologies at home also eases China’s heavy dependence on imported oil, helping President Xi attain his goal of eliminating the country’s vulnerabilities to the outside world through his vaunted aim of achieving greater “self-sufficiency.” And the Chinese have already suffered badly from the effects of a warming environment: An epic drought this year dried up rivers and strained the economy of southwestern China. Beijing thus has a strong interest in minimizing the damage to a densely populated, resource-strained nation.

“I don’t think there is any question that China’s domestic climate policy is robust and is going to continue,” Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on China’s environmental policy at Villanova University, told me. Chinese leaders “are people with a long view. They want to be in power for a long time, they want to have a prosperous and successful country for a long time, so they are very aware of the threat that climate change brings.”

Internationally, Beijing’s commitment is a bit murkier. China has already played a significant part in advancing international climate negotiations, and the Communist Party would have a seemingly self-evident interest in taking a lead. With U.S. policy subject to unpredictable changes of administration, climate could be an easy way for Beijing to expand its global influence and “soft power” at America’s expense. China’s leadership has already won global kudos for such promises as Xi’s 2021 pledge to stop building coal-fired power plants outside China.

Traditionally, though, China’s leaders tend to be uncomfortable with international entanglements that tie their hands at home, and this discomfort may extend to climate. Joanna Lewis, the director of the science, technology, and international-affairs program at Georgetown University, describes China as a “reluctant leader on climate change.” As the world’s largest emitter, she told me, China doesn’t “really want to be in the global spotlight when it comes to greenhouse-gas mitigation.”

Indeed, China’s record on global climate commitments is mixed. At last year’s COP26 meeting, Beijing signed on to a pledge to halt and reverse deforestation but passed on another to reduce methane releases, and worked with India to water down a clause on eliminating emissions from coal for power generation in the final pact. Although China has often championed the interests of poor nations on climate issues, it has also dodged pressure to compensate them for damage done by the impact of rising temperatures.

Li, of Greenpeace, pointed out that Xi may have downgraded China’s global role. In Xi’s report to the 19th Communist Party Congress, in 2017, he said that China was “taking a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change,” making the country a “torchbearer in the global endeavor for ecological civilization.” But last month, at the 20th Congress, he said that China would merely “get actively involved” in global climate efforts.

“There has been a lack of initiative” from China, Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told me. “There is clearly this ambition for having a more multipolar approach, building a multipolar world order for China to take more of a role in designing and setting the rules in the international order—for which climate is a great opportunity. But somehow, it feels [as though] the initiative to really come up with … new arrangements, new coalitions under the climate umbrella, hasn’t really been there.”

The likely outcome of all of this is that Beijing will pursue its own policy and priorities on climate. In many respects, that course will lead in the right direction—toward reducing emissions at home, where a great part of the fight with a changing climate will be won or lost. That route may also compel Beijing to maintain a dialogue on climate with Washington, even if relations turn even rockier. Perhaps the UN process can act as a platform to keep the two sides engaged. But counting on that would be foolhardy.

Washington may need a new climate strategy that is less focused on cooperation with China. Scott Moore, the director of China programs at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology Are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future, recommends that Washington “stop emphasizing bilateral cooperation and start emphasizing multilateral approaches, which is something the U.S. frankly has never been great at when it comes to China and the climate issue.” He told me that the concept of a Group of Two, or G2, “actually had a lot of resonance in Washington … the idea that these two big powerful countries could come together and make big things happen. But the reality is that you need [the approach] to be multilateral.”

The world may need to move on as well. Obviously, we’d all be better off if the U.S. and China were able to set aside their differences and resolve global problems. But just because the two countries share a common interest on climate, and have every reason to cooperate on it, doesn’t mean they will. That’s true also of other important international issues, such as nonproliferation, global health, and poverty alleviation. In a supposedly multipolar world order, voices beyond Washington and Beijing may need to fill this vacuum, rallying those willing to lead and pressuring the recalcitrant. This may not be the world we want, but it’s the world we’ve got.