China Breaks Decades of Climate Gridlock

By overturning the principle that the West must decarbonize before developing countries, Beijing has opened the way for real action.

Workers from Wuhan Guangsheng Photovoltaic Company install solar panels on the roof of a building in Wuhan on April 27, 2017.
Workers from Wuhan Guangsheng Photovoltaic Company install solar panels on the roof of a building in Wuhan on April 27, 2017. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

President Xi Jinping’s announcement in September that China would cut its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2060 caught the world by surprise, turning conventional climate wisdom on its head. Since the mid-1990s, most observers have believed that the United States held the key to global climate action.

And even today, the incoming Biden administration continues to embrace the conceit, promising to take up the mantle of global climate leadership and even threatening to brand other nations as “climate outlaws” despite having no actionable plan to significantly cut U.S. emissions.

China, by contrast, has fundamentally changed the rules of the game. Its announcement was quickly followed by net-zero pledges from Japan and Korea. The breakthrough, it appears, has taken place in Asia, not Washington, and represents at once a rebuke of the infamously climate change-denying Trump administration and also a backhanded validation of sorts.

China’s commitment should disprove, once and for all, Trump’s oft-repeated 2012 tweet claiming that climate change was a “Chinese hoax” designed to destroy U.S. manufacturing. But it has also vindicated the view among many critics of international climate efforts that meaningful global action could not proceed without major commitments from China.

Xi’s landmark announcement marks an overdue departure from the principle of “separate and differentiated responsibilities,” which has long guided international efforts to address climate change. So hegemonic has been the assumption that global climate action would require U.S. (and more broadly Western) leadership that it was literally baked into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which stipulated that because the United States and other industrialized nations were both wealthier and responsible for most historic emissions, they would go first, slashing emissions deeply before developing nations like China and India would begin to limit their emissions at all.

Back in 1990, when the convention was established, that principle seemingly made sense. China and India’s combined GDP totaled less than that of the United Kingdom. But even by the late-1990s, when the Kyoto Protocol was finalized, it had already become clear that China was going to be a formidable economic competitor to Western advanced economies, creating intractable geopolitical obstacles to a coordinated global effort to cut emissions.

Because cutting emissions required substantially increasing the cost of energy-intensive and economically essential activities like manufacturing, refining, and steel production, the principle imposed substantial costs on advanced economies in the United States, Japan, and Europe but not on their emerging competitor.

Months before global negotiators convened in Japan to finalize the Kyoto Protocol in December of 1997, the die had already been cast. That summer, the U.S. Congress voted 95-0 to pass a resolution asserting that the United States should make no binding international commitments to cut its emissions in the absence of similar commitments by China. A few years later, Europe functionally exempted its industrial base—roughly 40 percent of its emissions—to avoid disadvantaging energy-intensive industries as it became clear that China posed as great a threat to European manufacturing as the United States or Japan.

By 2009, when efforts to extend the Kyoto Protocol at talks in Copenhagen collapsed, China had become the world’s largest emitter.

Japan, most especially, found itself between a rock and a hard place, as its world-leading efforts to improve industrial energy efficiency throughout the 1970s and 1980s didn’t count toward its Kyoto targets. Lacking easy options to cut emissions in an export-oriented economy that was already struggling to contend with China’s growing mercantile might, Japan would push Kyoto’s “flexibility mechanisms” to the limit, delegating most of its emissions reductions to carbon offset programs originally intended to merely supplement direct emissions reductions.

By 2009, when efforts to extend the Kyoto Protocol at talks in Copenhagen collapsed, China had become the world’s largest emitter and its largest manufacturer of steel, solar panels, wind turbines, high-speed trains, and much more. China had grown into a manufacturing colossus with supply chains, trade agreements, and geopolitical arrangements spanning the globe.

And yet, international climate negotiations remained saddled with the conceit that China was a less developed country with no obligation to cut its emissions and indeed, entitled to aid and technology transfer from the very nations that, in other multilateral contexts, accused Beijing of stealing their intellectual property.

That conceit continued to hobble international efforts in the years after Copenhagen as international climate conferences were wracked by disagreements over the obligations that developed Western economies owed to less developed nations. Fundamentally, the serial failure to resolve conflicts regarding the need for deep emissions cuts in developed economies, the timing of emissions cuts in emerging economies like China and India, and related controversies around questions such as financing for less developed countries and technology transfer all flowed from the contradictions and impracticalities created by the separate and differentiated responsibilities principle. The United States often took the lion’s share of the blame. But the tangle could not, ultimately, be resolved without meaningful emissions reduction commitments from China.

The notion that the United States would serve as the fulcrum for global climate action survived as long as it did because it was a useful fiction that served a variety of other interests and purposes.

Emphasizing Western climate culpability allowed China to invoke global climate equity while building up a massive fossil-fueled industrial base to support its mercantile ambitions. It allowed Europe to position itself as the conscience of the global effort to fight climate change while laying its failures at the feet of the United States. Russia—Europe’s largest oil and gas supplier—along with other major oil-producing nations, skated by while the world focused its approbation on the United States. And environmentalists could blame Exxon for the failure of the world to heed their warnings while conveniently ignoring the reality that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves are state-owned. In all of these ways, casting the United States as the world’s preeminent climate outlaw served most interests relatively well.

In the end, China broke the gridlock because it had bigger geopolitical fish to fry. China’s net-zero commitment allowed it to neuter American criticism of China well before any potential change in U.S. political leadership while preempting efforts by the EU to apply pressure via carbon border taxes. Just as importantly, it was also calculated to counterbalance rising Western concerns about China’s belligerent posture in the South China Sea, its saber-rattling toward Taiwan, its human-rights crackdown in Hong Kong, its genocidal assault on the Uighur minority in northwestern China, and much more.

Perhaps most of all, the nation’s massive industrial base, world-leading clean energy industries, and gargantuan investment budgets make the mammoth build-out of clean energy required to meet Xi’s declared goals not unreasonable. China’s power sector may already be oversaturated with more coal capacity than needed (a consideration that may be starting to drive similar movement away from future coal plant builds in India). Moreover, relative to the current pace of clean energy installation in China, potential decarbonization plans might only require moderate increases in rates of capacity addition. Already the world’s preeminent clean technology manufacturer and exporter, China is well positioned to dominate the global dash to net-zero emissions that it appears to have inspired.

Commitments like Xi’s, of course, are no guarantee that nations will follow through on them, especially when they entail decades of sustained policy effort. Indeed, the history of global climate negotiations is littered with empty promises of this sort. But China’s deliberate choice to lead rather than lag on climate efforts, abandoning in the process the principle of separate and differentiated responsibilities, points to the clarity of Beijing’s political calculus. Moreover, China, Japan, and South Korea remain highly centralized economies where national industrial policy carries weight. Whether or not these nations actually hit their targets, commitments like these, once made, lurch toward reality thanks to large, powerful, and permanent bureaucracies that take them very seriously.

There is no shortage of irony that the grotesqueries of Trump’s climate-hoax theatrics helped spur Chinese leadership to action. Perhaps China would have made its commitment anyway. But Trump’s explicit abdication of American leadership, establishing once and for all that the United States would be a climate follower, not a leader, unquestionably played an important role in unlocking possibilities for more ambitious action that have been frozen for three decades while the world waited for the United States to act.

Since at least China’s 1998 admission into the World Trade Organization, it has been clear that the decisions that will determine how quickly and deeply the world cuts emissions will be made in Beijing, New Delhi, Abuja, Jakarta, and Brasilia, not Washington or Brussels. Policymakers in those places are not remotely interested in how rapidly Copenhagen or Stockholm can slash emissions

While the United States is unlikely to make a similar commitment anytime soon, it may not much matter. In a future in which China and much of the rest of the world have developed and deployed low-carbon technology at the scale that mid-century targets imply, it is unlikely U.S. emissions wouldn’t follow a similar trajectory, riding on the coattails of cheap, low-carbon technologies developed and manufactured elsewhere.

Unburdened by the mantle of climate leadership, perhaps the United States will even find a more constructive role as a technology innovator.

Unburdened by the mantle of climate leadership, perhaps the United States will even find a more constructive role as a technology innovator, thanks to its world-leading universities, its national laboratories, its unparalleled venture capital networks, and its entrepreneurial private sector. Virtually every key low-carbon technology, after all, was originally developed in the United States, which even today continues to lead the pack in creating many of the most promising next-generation clean technologies.

But one need not be a China hawk to observe that rising mercantile powers have a largely successful history of supplanting older powers as technological leaders. China is already the global manufacturer of note for key technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. It is now the world’s largest builder of nuclear power plants as well. Insofar as the United States lags in deploying low-carbon technology, it is likely to cede its innovation leadership to other, more ambitious players.

None of this is fated, of course. The net-zero commitments of China and others may prove to be as empty as past commitments to cut emissions under Kyoto. But seeing China’s commitment only through the lens of climate action is myopic. Trump-era diplomacy and policies have done profound damage to U.S. credibility around the world on almost every significant international geopolitical concern.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement—as Biden has pledged to do—can help repair the damage to some degree. But the contrast between China’s far-reaching, ambitious, and seemingly credible climate commitment and Biden’s strong words are likely to become rapidly apparent.

Increased climate ambition, moreover, forms just one component of Beijing’s international leadership, alongside World Health Organization efforts to combat COVID-19, significant investments in scientific research, international development initiatives through the Belt and Road program, and more. The bid for global status comes alongside China’s own evolution into the world’s preeminent manufacturing powerhouse and, increasingly, its most influential and attractive consumer market. China’s newly muscular leadership on climate cannot be separated from a broader decentering of liberal democracies in international affairs.

That displacement carries significant implications. For all its limitations and failures, the broadly liberal world order that has shaped global affairs since the end of World War II mostly supported a more integrated and affluent global economy, a more globally conscious public, and the establishment of international norms around trade, the environment, conflict, and human rights.

The decentering of Western liberal democracies is probably inevitable. Without question, China’s new climate declaration is game-changing—the signal the world has been waiting for. But China’s influence on the fate of future generations will be far greater than just its role in efforts to address climate change. As a Chinese regime that takes a dim view of human rights and democratic accountability increasingly asserts its interests on the world stage, it is worth remembering that a world that succeeds in addressing climate change will not necessarily be a more equitable, inclusive, or humane one.

Ted Nordhaus is the executive director and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute and co-author of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Twitter: @TedNordhaus

Seaver Wang is a climate and energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. Twitter: @wang_seaver

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