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The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Make Sacrifices to Get China’s Climate Cooperation

Beijing is sincere about fighting climate change—for its own best interests.

By , an editor at the U.S. Naval War College and a reserve naval officer. The views expressed are his own.
People commute during the morning rush hour on a polluted day in Beijing's financial district on March 4.
People commute during the morning rush hour on a polluted day in Beijing's financial district on March 4. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden entered the White House in January and immediately began mobilizing the U.S. government and global partners around two major policy poles, combating climate change and strategic competition with China. As the two most critical issues the United States arguably faces, they dominate the foreign-policy conversation, leading to tough questions about what happens when priorities seem to clash.

Despite strong records and statements from senior Biden officials on the challenge that China poses, some national security policy hands and pundits still worry that the Biden administration may sacrifice more traditional strategic concerns, such as Taiwan or the South China Sea, in an attempt to strike a climate bargain with Beijing. This betrays both a misperception of earlier climate breakthroughs and a mistaken belief that China’s own ambitious climate goals are disingenuous or principally fodder to gain other concessions.

China made strong joint climate commitments with the United States in 2014 and again in the Paris climate agreement out of its own interest in curbing the costs of pollution and climate change. Since then, China has ramped up its renewable power sector, enhanced its enforcement of environmental mandates, and set even more ambitious climate goals for itself. Social and economic transformation on the scale that achieving those goals requires cannot be bought with concessions from the United States. Framing climate cooperation with China as zero-sum against a broader strategic competition also ignores that much of that cooperation should be setting the terms for productive competition on green technology, renewable supply chains, decarbonizing industry, and infrastructure financing—not just pushing for more aggressive targets.

Joe Biden entered the White House in January and immediately began mobilizing the U.S. government and global partners around two major policy poles, combating climate change and strategic competition with China. As the two most critical issues the United States arguably faces, they dominate the foreign-policy conversation, leading to tough questions about what happens when priorities seem to clash.

Despite strong records and statements from senior Biden officials on the challenge that China poses, some national security policy hands and pundits still worry that the Biden administration may sacrifice more traditional strategic concerns, such as Taiwan or the South China Sea, in an attempt to strike a climate bargain with Beijing. This betrays both a misperception of earlier climate breakthroughs and a mistaken belief that China’s own ambitious climate goals are disingenuous or principally fodder to gain other concessions.

China made strong joint climate commitments with the United States in 2014 and again in the Paris climate agreement out of its own interest in curbing the costs of pollution and climate change. Since then, China has ramped up its renewable power sector, enhanced its enforcement of environmental mandates, and set even more ambitious climate goals for itself. Social and economic transformation on the scale that achieving those goals requires cannot be bought with concessions from the United States. Framing climate cooperation with China as zero-sum against a broader strategic competition also ignores that much of that cooperation should be setting the terms for productive competition on green technology, renewable supply chains, decarbonizing industry, and infrastructure financing—not just pushing for more aggressive targets.

Nevertheless, domestic critics focus on John Kerry’s high-profile role as Biden’s climate envoy to claim that he might undercut strong administration policies against China to secure its cooperation on climate change. The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined that “Chinese leaders will be only too happy to make future promises on climate in return for American acquiescence today to their security priorities.” An anonymous former Obama administration official complained that “China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will deliver a load of it in a wheelbarrow right to their front door every day,” an idea with strong currency in more hawkish quarters.

Kerry addressed these attacks at a White House press conference in January to announce an array of new climate change initiatives, saying that the United States has serious differences with China on issues including intellectual property rights, market access, and the South China Sea, but he insisted that “those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. … And I know some people have been concerned. Nothing is going to be siphoned off into one area from another.”

This extraordinary response reflects a lingering belief that, as secretary of state, Kerry helped influence the Obama administration to appease China during bilateral climate negotiations in 2014 and the Paris Agreement talks in 2015. The narrative alleges that by holding back naval patrols to prevent upsetting diplomacy while China built up artificial islands and military bases in the Spratly Islands, the administration allowed China to assert effective control over the South China Sea.

But there is little evidence to suggest that this actually happened.

The National Security Council staff’s China director during the Obama administration denies that climate negotiators were allowed to trade off against other issues to gain China’s cooperation or that the administration ever tempered its response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea as a result. In 2015, both Kerry and President Barack Obama criticized China’s island construction and regional strong-arm tactics leading up to a September summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House. In October, right after Xi declared that China had no intention of militarizing the Spratly Islands, the United States sent a warship to patrol through them. Defense Secretary Ash Carter then made a high-profile visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, just ahead of the final Paris climate negotiations in December.

China’s state media and foreign ministry condemned these moves, and the U.S. ambassador was summoned to receive official complaints, but it had no apparent effect on China’s participation in the Paris talks. Nor did additional patrols and condemnations by the Obama administration in 2016, or reportedly preventing China from building a new island base near the Philippines, affect China’s final ratification of the Paris Agreement later that year.

Still, underpinning the belief that China will only cooperate on climate if given concessions elsewhere is the idea that Beijing is not sincere about tackling climate change. (Some conspiracy theorists have even tried to paint climate change as a sinister Chinese plot intended to wring concessions from the United States.) More plausible, but still wrong, is the belief that China’s appetite for coal makes it a bad-faith climate actor. More than half of China’s power generation still comes from coal plants, and it produces so much power (and steel and concrete, which also rely on coal) that China accounts for half of global coal consumption. And despite its environmental rhetoric and expanding renewable energy capacity, China has more new coal plants under development or approved than the United States’ total remaining coal power capacity and still finances others abroad.

So when Xi told the United Nations General Assembly last September that China’s carbon emissions would top out before 2030 (in line with the commitments it made with the United States in 2014) and then announced a surprise pledge to make China’s economy carbon neutral by 2060, it was met with a mix of elation and skepticism.

Some saw Xi’s pledge as a public relations exercise to burnish China’s international reputation, which had been damaged by the failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its acrimonious “wolf warrior” diplomacy, and China’s expanding use of military and economic coercion against its neighbors.

But Xi’s announcement did not come out of a propaganda shop; it followed a secretive, yearlong analysis overseen by Xie Zhenhua, China’s former chief climate negotiator, that showed how China’s net carbon output could be zeroed out in the coming decades. The Chinese leadership—which steers a country with a population four times greater than that of the United States, a highly exposed coastline, and a severe lack of arable land—is well aware of the danger climate change poses. And the scale of China’s commitment to renewable energy cannot be dismissed as show. China reported that it installed almost 120 gigawatts of new wind and solar generation capacity in 2020 alone, nearly twice what the United States and European Union combined did last year. Some of this capacity may be claiming credit for projects that remain in development, but it still far surpasses any other country’s volume of clean power installation, and analysts expect China will build even more in 2021.

China’s strides in renewable energy deployment alongside its staggering coal statistics suggest that Xi’s climate goals are not a political ploy. Rather, that coal and the web of industries and communities it supports are a massive, deeply entrenched political and economic constituency—much greater than in the United States. Even the Chinese Communist Party’s extensive controls have struggled to transition those interests effectively and justly away from carbon or from offshoring it to other countries with coal plant development financed through China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

But there are signs that China is beginning to tackle its coal problem more seriously.

But there are signs that China is beginning to tackle its coal problem more seriously. In January, the country’s central environmental inspection group submitted a scathing report on the failure of the Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA) to rein in the coal power sector in line with national goals and political guidelines.

Many of the failures that the report highlights are among outside observers’ biggest concerns about China’s reliance on coal, including approving new coal plants in excess of demand and environmental targets, failing to close older and underutilized plants as new ones are built, coal mines exceeding their approved production quotas, and failing to build out sufficient transmission infrastructure for the renewable energy that is being produced.

Normally, reports like these have limited impact. But China’s sharp ideological turn and the reassertion of party control under Xi (which has plenty of other worrying implications) may mean that the party-state’s coercive power will be more focused now on enforcing his environmental mandates. Fines and arrests for serious environmental violations are already on the rise.

Moreover, because this new environmental inspection group is empowered by both the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council (China’s top government body), it did not just look for bureaucratic shortcomings but assigned political failure as well. The group declared that the NEA—which is a state, not a party, organization—did not effectively implement “Xi Jinping’s Ecological Civilization Thought,” the party’s doctrine for environmental protection and sustainable development. It somewhat menacingly attributed this failure to a deterioration of the administration’s “political ecology.” The NEA now owes a rectification plan—often a sign of a serious political mistake—to the Central Committee for correcting the problems in the report. The speed and scope of its action will provide some indication of whether Xi’s carbon goals are serious.

There are already new signs that they are. Not long after its inspection fiasco, the NEA circulated new draft renewable energy requirements to provincial energy authorities. Their mandate to dramatically increase the renewable share of China’s power consumption over the next decade is consistent with additional pledges Xi made to a U.N. climate conference last December, indicating that they were not simply cheap talk.

The NEA inspection report and these draft energy requirements suggest the world can expect strong climate goals in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, to be released later this month. To achieve Xi’s targets, the development plan will have to increase renewable energy’s share of national power production and at least hold, if not shrink, existing caps on coal power. Those caps might require both closing older coal plants and canceling some newly approved plants.

Maintaining China’s development goals also means that provinces that have relied on excess plant construction and overproduction to help meet their economic benchmarks—especially in China’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery—will need assistance transitioning carbon-intensive industries and communities to greener alternatives. To that end, the State Council recently announced a host of green development initiatives, including low-carbon targets for energy generation and the production of carbon-intensive materials like steel and concrete.

China’s real climate achievements and the efforts it appears poised to expand—to say nothing of Xi’s imprimatur on environmental progress generally—leave attempts by Chinese diplomats to link new climate cooperation to concessions on other strategic issues sounding hollow. The Chinese foreign ministry’s response to Kerry’s comments warned against foreign interference in its “domestic” affairs but reiterated China’s position as a global climate champion ready to cooperate further.

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo and head of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office, was more direct in recent remarks. He insisted that the United States had to respect China’s interests in Taiwan and stop condemning its repression in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang for the relationship between the two countries to improve—demands that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promptly rebuffed in their first joint call. But in his earlier speech, Yang also repeated China’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and Xi’s 2030 and 2060 carbon goals.

Since those climate commitments are not contingent on anything that the United States does, Chinese leaders may genuinely want to work with Washington on renewable energy, sustainable development, and difficult problems like industrial decarbonization—but would rather not be seen asking to. The Chinese readout of the call with Blinken does not mention his affirmation of the United States’ commitment to human rights against China’s crackdowns, suggesting that, behind its strident rhetoric, China is preserving space to work together.

At almost the same time that Yang was scolding the United States’ human rights position, China brought Xie Zhenhua out of retirement to resume his role as its top climate envoy. A veteran of both the bilateral and Paris climate talks, his working relationship with Kerry goes back nearly two decades. Of all Beijing’s recent moves, it may be the surest sign that China is serious about making real progress on climate change with the United States, even as the strategic competition between them intensifies.

Steven Stashwick is an editor at the U.S. Naval War College and a reserve naval officer. The views expressed are his own. Twitter: @StevenStashwick

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