What does the tension between the US and China mean for combating climate change? – Community News
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What does the tension between the US and China mean for combating climate change?

Six years ago, an unprecedented level of cooperation between the United States and China laid the foundation for the Paris Climate Agreement, a milestone in the fight against global warming.

But as final preparations are made for successive international summits this week, that partnership has dwindled. Dialogue between the two superpowers has been overshadowed by frictions over trade, allegations of human rights abuses and security issues — not to mention the domestic political and economic challenges both countries face that make cooperation difficult.

Their tense relationship will be on display at the Group of 20 forum for world leaders in Rome, which begins Saturday, and the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which begins the following day. President Biden plans to attend both in person, while Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to attend virtually.

Some experts and policymakers worry that the tension between them will jeopardize progress on climate change at a time when the catastrophic effects of rising temperatures are becoming more apparent than ever. Others note that Beijing has shown a willingness to act independently of US coordination, and they hope the competition between the two powers could be a positive “race to the top” as each strives to outperform the other in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What is clear, however, is that the dynamics between the US and China have changed dramatically in recent years. “We are fundamentally in a very different era,” said Thom Woodroofe, fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and former climate diplomat.

Ahead of the 2015 Paris summit, Woodroofe said negotiations between Washington and Beijing produced a joint announcement that was an “absolute game changer.” It signaled that China was ready to strike a deal for the first time, he said, which had a cascading effect, giving other countries confidence that progress could be made.

This time, Beijing has rolled out a series of climate announcements that seem timed to avoid making it seem like China is making changes due to US pressure. While diplomats from both countries remain in close contact, it is questionable whether they can urge the rest of the world to increase its ambitions without a united front.

“There is no climate solution without the US and China moving in the same direction,” said Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Solar panels on hills.

Solar panels will cover hills in China in 2019.

(Sam McNeil / Associated Press)

At the moment, neither country is doing enough to meet the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although China is a leading supplier of solar and wind energy and electric vehicles, it is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases and the largest consumer of coal.

Xi announced last year that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, but the country has no plans to stop cutting emissions until 2030. He only announced last month that his government would stop funding coal-fired power plants around the world.

The US emits more greenhouse gases per capita than any other country. Biden wants the US to cut emissions to between 50% and 52% below 2005 levels by 2030, but he struggles to enact laws that can deliver on his promises.

Many Chinese observers are skeptical about whether the US can move forward, especially after seeing former President Trump abandon the climate battle, said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace China.

“The US doesn’t have much credibility and it’s not a temporary problem,” Li said. “It’s systemic.”

Still, he said, US involvement could still play a role. He noted a shift in the way the two countries described their roles in a joint statement this year on combating climate change: the document no longer referred to “common but differentiated responsibilities,” a term that had been used to put more burdens on to reduce emissions from rich countries.

“In a sense, this is China saying it’s okay, we can, at least diplomatically, we’re open to more responsibility,” Li said. He also said China probably wouldn’t have made its commitment to end foreign financing of coal-fired power plants without US involvement — though Beijing emphatically waited until September to announce that rather than at a virtual summit hosted by Biden in April. organized.

China is expected to unveil further domestic climate change mitigation plans this week and announce its short- and long-term commitments to COP26, the acronym for the Glasgow summit. Climate proponents hope China will push its peak carbon date to 2025, move its carbon neutrality deadline to 2050, and announce an emissions cap. But Beijing is unlikely to do all that, especially if it could involve any kind of betrayal of the United States.

President Biden in a truck.

President Biden tested an electric Ford pickup during a trip to Michigan in May.

(Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The Biden administration has sought to engage China as a standalone issue in its climate, despite towering tensions between the two powers over a range of other issues, including technology, trade and the origins of the coronavirus. Biden chose former Secretary of State John F. Kerry as his global climate envoy and Xi named Xie Zhenhua as his counterpart. The two experienced diplomats had worked closely in the past and spoke nearly 20 times this year.

However, ground has shifted since pre-Paris coordination between the US and China. American politicians are rather skeptical about China’s global ambitions. They are growing concerned about Beijing’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan, an island democracy that China sees as a breakaway province, and toward the South China Sea, a major trade route.

Beijing has tried to use climate as a bargaining chip, complaining that the US should not ask to cooperate on climate while pressuring China on human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month that climate cooperation could be an “oasis” in US-China relations, “but if that oasis is surrounded by desert, sooner or later it will also become desert.”

The Biden administration has said it will not compromise on other issues for the sake of deeper climate cooperation. Kerry in January called climate cooperation a “critical self-contained issue” and insisted that other Chinese companies “should never be traded for anything climate-related”.

But human rights lawyers worry that the Biden administration has since softened its tone, especially in the Xinjiang region, where more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained for “re-education” in a campaign of cultural assimilation, according to UN groups and researchers. China denies the charges, saying its camps were vocational centers designed to combat terrorism and poverty.

The US has declared that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang and has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in the oppression of minorities there. That includes sanctions on solar panel materials made in Xinjiang that involve Uyghur forced labor, according to the US and human rights groups.

Republican lawmakers have accused the Biden administration of withholding a bipartisan law on forced Uyghur labor that the Senate passed but has stalled in the House.

Asked about human rights in China at a House hearing on climate change in May, Kerry said: “That’s not my way. My path is very specific to try to get the Chinese moving to do what we need to do regarding the climate itself.” He added that China produces 72% of all solar panels worldwide and is the world’s largest maker of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries.

Two people in an official looking room.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Prime Minister Li Keqiang arrive at an event commemorating the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9.

(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

Woodroofe, the Asia Society fellow, said a more meaningful source of pressure on China may come from developing countries most vulnerable to climate change.

An important part of China’s assertive foreign policy under Xi was to act as the leader of the developing world who stood up to the United States and its allies. Many of the countries Beijing is investing in through its Belt and Road initiative have voted alongside China in the UN General Assembly on issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But now they want China to do more about climate change.

“For many of those countries, frankly, their survival rests on the global climate battle, and Beijing holds the biggest keys to whether or not that battle succeeds,” he said. “That has changed the way many of these countries see China.”

Climate experts still hope that global warming can be treated as a neutral ground for US-China cooperation, especially in scientific research. Major strides are still needed in technologies such as the storage and transmission of clean energy.

“The world is really missing out on a big opportunity when the No. 1 and No. 2 powerhouses in science and technology are unable to work together without deep suspicion,” said David Victor, a professor of innovation and public policy at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego.

Sam Geall, a China and climate policy expert at the University of Sussex, said Washington and Beijing need to find a way to work together on global warming, just as Washington and Moscow worked together to prevent nuclear proliferation during the Cold. to limit war.

“This has a similar existential quality to it,” he said. “And that way it has to be taken seriously.”

Megerian reported from Washington and Su from Beijing.