In a competitive international environment, the great powers China and the USA can spur each other on.
- The US and China have not always worked together in the past.
- However, competition between the two great powers can also be beneficial.
- This would enable the USA and China to advance climate protection, says Lauri Myllyvirta.
- This article is available in German for the first time – it was first published by the magazine on April 21, 2021 Foreign Policy.
Washington – If there is one universally accepted truth in climate change reporting and foreign policy analysis, it is that the United States and China must “work together”. According to The Associated Press it is “virtually impossible” to prevent the worst effects of climate change “if these countries do not work together”. Todd Stern, at the time US President Barack Obama’s climate protection officer, wrote in September 2020 that if Joe Biden wins the election in November, it will be essential to work effectively with China again on the issue of climate change.
USA: “Biden’s priority should be to work with China on climate change”
Jerry Brown, former governor of California, said, “Biden’s priority should be to work with China on climate change.” But whether that is actually the case is not certain. Competition can be a stronger force than cooperation when it comes to truly saving the planet.
Sure, success in the global effort against climate change requires the US and China, the world’s largest polluters, to cut their own emissions and assist and encourage other countries to do the same. However, both countries have the capacity, financial strength and technology to do this without relying on the other.
China: Xi deliberately wanted to forestall the US government with a carbon neutrality target
It is clear why climate cooperation between the USA and China is such a popular idea: It resulted in the joint climate declaration by Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in 2014, which in turn paved the way for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. At that time, the two presidents were able to secure each other against domestic political resistance by announcing their commitments together.
But today the domestic political dynamic in China is completely different, due to increased self-confidence, nationalism and fears that the US is trying to slow down China’s rise. Xi deliberately wanted to anticipate the new US administration with its carbon neutrality target and did not want to make the announcement together with the European Union, although talks between China and the EU on the subject of climate change took place shortly before the declaration.
USA and China: Competition as an incentive?
The impression of compromising with the United States would be poison for Beijing in the current climate. Last week, during the visit to Shanghai by John Kerry, Biden’s climate commissioner, a high-level telephone conversation between Xi and two European heads of state – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron – was arranged to publish as a precaution all steps that would otherwise be the results of Kerry’s visit could have been viewed.
In the United States, understandably, many want to see the country as the frontrunner, uniting others in the fight against climate change. However, Donald Trump’s presidency has made it clear to the rest of the world that any unity that is being built around the United States can be undone when the next Republican president takes office – unless a miraculous turnaround occurs in the positioning of the party. That is not to say that the United States no longer plays a role in the global effort; but it is very different from that of the global leadership that they once aspired to. As the US and China clash politically and seek support for their respective camps, competition for technological, political, and economic leadership on climate can indeed prove to be a powerful incentive.
US and China An example of how more confrontational relationships help climate change
Xi has made low-carbon development a strategic priority for China. He has very good reasons to act: Food security, water resources and the regional security environment – all strategic key elements – would be threatened by advancing climate change. And a China that clings to a 19th-century coal-dependent industrial system while the rest of the world shifts to low-carbon energy, industrial and transportation solutions hardly fits Xi’s vision of his country as a technology leader.
While the decision to set an unexpectedly ambitious carbon neutrality target was likely motivated by national targets, international politics must have played a role too, particularly in timing. When it became clear last year that Americans would elect a president with a strong climate program, Xi may have been concerned that it would fall behind on the issue and be pressured and retaliatory by the US, the EU and its allies to be documented in the form of carbon tariffs on imports. So he got ahead of it and announced his own climate neutrality goal. This is an example of how more confrontational international relationships can help protect the climate.
The best the US can do to inspire China is to do its own thing to protect the climate
As part of the effort to control key low-carbon technologies and businesses, China will likely seek to increase funding, technology exports, and cooperation with third countries to bring its standards of smart grid infrastructure, electric vehicle charging, engineering, and more to other markets transferred to. In doing so, China would use its influence to induce other countries to become more ambitious in terms of clean energy generation.
The best that the United States can do to inspire China is to do all it can to protect the climate and build world-leading low-carbon industries and companies in our own country in order to create a climate change dynamic abroad and a clean alternative in developing countries To offer China’s carbon-heavy Belt and Road Initiative. This is, of course, primarily Washington’s necessary contribution to the global effort, but it would also encourage Beijing to be even more ambitious.
USA and China: Goodbye carbon-intensive projects? A previously empty promise
If the USA and China can vote – as they did before Paris – on how best to use the climate commitments of both countries to advance the international process, then that will be great. But here, too, it is much more important that each country uses its bilateral influence.
In terms of financing energy and infrastructure in developing countries, it would of course be a big step if Beijing and Washington could agree to exclude fossil fuel financing and compete on clean energy financing. China promised back in 2015 to cut funding for carbon-intensive projects; one has seen little of it so far.
Climate: USA and Co. have to drastically increase funding for clean energy
The willingness to be the financier of last resort for dirty projects gives China opportunities for bilateral deals that it is reluctant to give up. But countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh – main beneficiaries of international funding for coal-fired power plants – have carefully distributed their contracts between Japan, China and South Korea in order not to become completely dependent on one country. When other donors pull out, they will be much more cautious with big coal-fired plans. On the other hand, the United States and other developed countries must drastically increase funding for clean energy to ensure that there is a real alternative.
A more conflictual geopolitics has also opened the door to carbon tariffs and other trade measures against countries trying to gain an unfair advantage by neglecting climate policy. These measures promise to strengthen the international climate framework.
USA and China: Competition is good for climate protection
Effective monitoring and enforcement of commitments through a UN process is almost impossible. The establishment of mechanisms to track progress and to sanction latecomers is incumbent on the countries that campaign for climate protection – through their own laws and powers. A mechanism that sanctions climate sinners if they do less than the US would create an interesting dynamic. Should future US governments dismantle national climate policies, they would automatically remove the World Trade Organization-compliant justification for border tariffs on carbon that protect US industry and jobs from unfair competition.
Basically, the whole question of whether friendly or competitive relationships between countries are better for climate protection is not very productive. It is much more helpful to ask, “Given the current state of international relations, what is the best way to drive climate action?” Today this means that the climate community needs to take a hard look at how effective climate policies and measures are in a Look like a world that is characterized by competition and confrontation rather than cooperation.
by Lauri Myllyvirta
Lauri Myllyvirta is Lead Analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
This article was first published in English on April 21, 2021 in the magazine “ForeignPolicy.com“Published – in the course of a cooperation it is now also available to the readers of Merkur.de to disposal.
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