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Sino-U.S. Competition Is Good for Climate Change Efforts

In a contentious international environment, superpowers can spur each other on.

By , the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
Two men play chess by a smog-shrouded lake.
Two men play Chinese chess beside a lake on a heavily polluted day in Beijing on Jan. 1, 2017. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

If there’s one accepted truth in reporting and foreign-policy analysis on climate change, it’s that the United States and China need to “work together.” According to The Associated Press, avoiding the worst of climate change is “all but impossible unless these countries work together.” Todd Stern, who was President Barack Obama’s climate envoy, wrote in September 2020 that if Joe Biden “wins the election in November, it will be vital to again work effectively with China on climate change.” Former California Gov. Jerry Brown said that “Biden’s priority should be to work with China on climate change.” But it’s not clear that that’s actually true. Competition may be a more powerful force than cooperation when it comes to actually saving the planet.

To be sure, success in the global effort against climate disruption requires the United States and China, the world’s biggest emitters, to cut emissions at home, as well as help and push other countries to do the same. However, both countries have the required capacity, money, and technology to do so without relying on the other.

It’s easy to see why U.S.-China climate cooperation is such a popular idea: It gave rise to the 2014 joint climate announcement by Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, paving the way for the Paris Agreement in 2015. Back then, the two presidents could provide cover for each other domestically by announcing their commitments together.

But today, the domestic dynamics in China are completely different, due to increased assertiveness, nationalism, and fears that the United States is trying to stifle China’s rise. Xi very decidedly wanted to get ahead of the new U.S. administration with its carbon neutrality target and didn’t want to make the announcement together with the European Union, even though talks on climate change were taking place between China and the EU just before the declaration.

In the current climate, being seen as compromising with the United States would be toxic for Xi. Last week during the Shanghai visit of John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, a high-level call was set up between Xi and two European heads of state, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, to preemptively publish any steps that could otherwise have been seen as outcomes from the visit.

Many in the United States understandably want to think of the country as a leader that unites others in the fight against climate change. However, Donald Trump’s presidency drove it home for the rest of the world that any unity built around the United States will be undone when the next Republican president takes office, barring a miraculous reversal in the party’s position. This isn’t saying that the United States doesn’t have a role in the global effort—but it’s a very different one from the stance of global leadership it once aspired to. With the United States and China clashing politically and seeking to attract support to their respective camps, competition over technological, political, and business leadership on climate can actually prove a powerful spur.

Xi has declared low-carbon development to be a strategic priority for China. He has very good reasons to act: Food security, water resources, and the regional security environment, all key strategic issues, would be jeopardized by runaway climate change. And a China stuck with a 19th-century industrial system dependent on coal while the rest of the world moves on to low-carbon energy, industry, and transport hardly fits Xi’s vision of China as a leading technological power.

While the decision to set an unexpectedly ambitious carbon neutrality target was likely motivated by domestic goals, international politics must have played a role, too, especially in the timing. Last year, with the United States likely to elect a president with a strong climate platform, Xi may have been concerned about falling behind on the issue and being singled out for pressure and possible retaliation with carbon tariffs on imports by the United States, the EU, and their allies, so he wanted to get ahead by announcing the target. This is an example of how more confrontational international relations can be conducive to climate action.

As a part of the bid to control the key low-carbon technologies and businesses, China will likely seek to ramp up financing, technology exports, and cooperation with third countries, seeking to spread its standards for smart grid infrastructure, electric vehicle charging, engineering, and more to other markets. This effort would see China use its influence to encourage other countries to be more ambitious on clean energy.

The best thing the United States can do to encourage China along is to go big on climate action and build world-leading low-carbon industries and businesses at home, creating momentum among other countries and providing a clean alternative to China’s fossil fuel-heavy Belt and Road Initiative in developing countries. This is primarily, of course, what the United States needs to do to contribute to the global effort, but it would also spur China to be more ambitious.

If the United States and China can coordinate on how to best use the two countries’ climate commitments to move the international process forward, as they did before Paris, then that’s great. Even here, though, each country using its bilateral influence matters far more.

On financing energy and infrastructure in the developing world, if China and the United States could agree to rule out fossil fuel financing and compete in financing clean energy, that would of course be a major step. China already promised to limit financing for high-carbon projects in 2015 but has shown little sign of doing so.

The willingness to be the financier of last resort for dirty projects gives China opportunities in bilateral deal-making that it’s likely loath to give up.

The willingness to be the financier of last resort for dirty projects gives China opportunities in bilateral deal-making that it’s likely loath to give up. Yet countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh—key recipients of international financing for coal power plants—have carefully balanced between Japan, China, and South Korea to avoid being entirely dependent on one country. As other financiers back out, they will be much more wary of pushing ahead with a large coal power program. On the flipside, the United States and other developed countries need to dramatically increase financing for clean energy to ensure there is a real alternative.

More confrontational geopolitics have also opened up the door for border carbon tariffs and other trade measures against countries that are trying to gain an unfair advantage by slacking on climate policy. These measures promise to make the international climate framework stronger.

Effective monitoring and enforcement of commitments is almost impossible through a U.N. process. Building mechanisms to track progress and sanction laggards is up to those countries that favor climate action—through their own laws and powers. A mechanism that imposes penalties on climate laggards, subject to the condition that they are doing less than the United States, would create an interesting dynamic. If future U.S. administrations dismantle domestic climate policies, they would automatically remove the World Trade Organization-compliant justification for border carbon tariffs that protect U.S. industries and jobs from unfair competition.

Ultimately, the whole question of “Are friendly or competitive relations between countries better for climate action?” is not very productive in the abstract. It’s much more helpful to ask, “Given the state of international relations, what’s the best way to boost climate action?” Today, that means the climate community needs to make a tough evaluation of what effective climate politics and action look like in a world characterized by competition and confrontation rather than collaboration.

Lauri Myllyvirta is the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.