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China Is Laying Climate Traps for the United States

With the Glasgow conference approaching, U.S. diplomats must be careful.

By , the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and , a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
Rescue workers help people cross a flooded street in China.
Rescue workers help people cross a flooded street following heavy rain that claimed the lives of at least 33 people in Zhengzhou, China, on July 23. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, representing the United States in China-based talks this week, faces a formidable opponent: a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responsible for nearly one-third of current global carbon dioxide emissions. China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined—and pushes the United States to compensate for its own planet-poisoning ways. This is a major challenge for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden as it seeks to promote the “Road to Glasgow,” where the United Kingdom will host the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) from Nov. 1 to Nov. 12.

Hopes of coaxing China into lowering emissions before COP26 are a dead end. The only sustainable solution is an U.S. climate competition strategy, leveraging the threat of carbon taxation to incentivize a timely Chinese energy and policy transition to safeguard the atmosphere and oceans for future generations. But first, Kerry needs to make it through his China meetings.

Kerry and his team face three major traps their Chinese counterparts keep striving to lay. The Biden administration—including Kerry himself—has explicitly promised not to make concessions to Beijing in return for climate cooperation. But despite that pledge, linkage remains a real trap. The CPP’s unrelenting pursuit of political leverage at home and abroad invariably overrides its concern for the climate.

Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, representing the United States in China-based talks this week, faces a formidable opponent: a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responsible for nearly one-third of current global carbon dioxide emissions. China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined—and pushes the United States to compensate for its own planet-poisoning ways. This is a major challenge for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden as it seeks to promote the “Road to Glasgow,” where the United Kingdom will host the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) from Nov. 1 to Nov. 12.

Hopes of coaxing China into lowering emissions before COP26 are a dead end. The only sustainable solution is an U.S. climate competition strategy, leveraging the threat of carbon taxation to incentivize a timely Chinese energy and policy transition to safeguard the atmosphere and oceans for future generations. But first, Kerry needs to make it through his China meetings.

Kerry and his team face three major traps their Chinese counterparts keep striving to lay. The Biden administration—including Kerry himself—has explicitly promised not to make concessions to Beijing in return for climate cooperation. But despite that pledge, linkage remains a real trap. The CPP’s unrelenting pursuit of political leverage at home and abroad invariably overrides its concern for the climate.

Leading-emitter China keeps pushing to link its political priorities to other countries’ climate priorities. And progressive groups keep pushing the administration to dance with the devil and accept this Faustian bargain. But make no mistake: When foreign supplicants collide with the CCP’s self-interest, they will pay with both upfront concessions and wasted time, during which critical climate systems could be pushed beyond the point of no return.

And there is little possibility of domestic accountability in China itself because the CCP harshly suppresses environmental and climate dissent. It won’t even accept or air the professional assessments of its own environmental officials in key instances. Case in point: former China Central Television journalist Chai Jing, known as “China’s Rachel Carson.” Soon after being commended by Chinese Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jining, her 2015 TED-style documentary, Under the Dome, was abruptly censored—as were her personal communications and even Chen’s own discussion of her. Silencing China’s Silent Spring-inspired movement before it could even begin to stimulate badly needed discussion speaks louder than any words. Moreover, even after the disastrous Henan floods, Chinese state media coverage after major Chinese weather disasters tends to avoid mentioning climate change, let alone acknowledging China’s own emissions might be a factor influencing it. All the more reason Beijing’s so-called progressive climate sweet talk is only for naïve ears.

Two other major traps loom large for the United States on the road to Glasgow’s conference. One is getting sidetracked. Beijing loves to talk about dialogue but hasn’t come close to making meaningful climate commitments—which, in any case, the CPP will blatantly violate if it finds them inconvenient. The CCP has a long track record of breaking even the most binding of promises. Among the many examples are the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, registered at the United Nations as an international treaty, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assurance, delivered at a public press conference with then-U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015, that China would not militarize key contested areas in the South China Sea—a pledge promptly invalidated by the People’s Liberation Army’s own actions even as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for “dialogue and consultation.” And in the climate realm specifically, China has repeatedly backslid and not consistently honored key commitments it made when it ratified the Montreal Protocol 30 years ago in 1991.

In harsh Leninist fashion, the CCP consistently puts itself before everything else, even the planet’s future. That doesn’t mean it’s always insincere when talking about the environment. China’s leaders are well aware of the political and health costs of heavy pollution at home and of the dangers increasingly frequent natural disasters pose—especially to its vulnerable coastline. But the first priority will always be the party’s own short-term survival. Future global goods typically come last.

Another danger is unilaterally making climate sacrifices China doesn’t reciprocate. Beijing wants to negotiate a costly toll gate en route to Glasgow by prompting the United States—and Europe—to bear disproportionate costs. Better yet, it prefers its major economic and strategic competitors lead decarbonization at great expense, both to render them less competitive and to pioneer best practices by trial and error so China can keep pursuing its preferred “selfish superpower” path to free-riding “second-mover” advantage.

Between 2009 and 2019, China emitted nearly twice as much cumulative carbon dioxide as the United States—a gap likely to widen further in coming years. Beijing around 1979 would have had reasonable moral capital to argue Washington should cut emissions first. But by now, China has clearly reached a level where the sheer scale of its emissions overwhelms arguments about emissions intensity and treating the world’s second largest economy as a less developed country for climate purposes. China’s scale of carbon dioxide emissions is now at least twice as large as that of the United States: In 10 years, it emits what the United States would in 20 to 25 years. And even its per capita carbon dioxide emissions already exceed those of key G-8 economies like Italy and the United Kingdom.

Kerry and his team should remember that China’s vague promise to peak coal use by 2030 is nowhere close to being reciprocal. To even begin to approach a level of commitments equivalent to the Biden administration’s truly ambitious plans, China—among other things—would have to credibly commit to achieving a net zero carbon electricity system by 2035 or 2040. No such offer even appears on the table, leaving aside how credible one could possibly be in practice.

Talking is fine in theory, but to be effective in reality, Washington needs to be coming from a position of strength and leverage. Presently, Chinese officials refuse to credit Kerry, Biden, or any other U.S. counterpart with any such leverage. That can and must change for the better. As we explained in our Foreign Affairs article and our report for Rice University’s Baker Institute, the United States must now pursue climate competition to generate that leverage.

This approach is powerful and positive. Washington’s strength is greatest when exercised in concert with others for the greater good. The U.S.-led climate coalition should start with Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) industrial democracies and smaller coastal states like Pacific islands, which are often the first (and worst) affected by climate change. There is ample room for all genuinely cooperative partners to play a positive role. These climate allies should impose domestic carbon taxes in coordination with one another benchmarked to a negotiated standard. Based on OECD members alone, this carbon coalition would constitute the world’s largest economic bloc and include China’s most important export markets.

Third, the United States must completely avoid making substantive climate-linked concessions on non-climate issues, such as Indo-Pacific security and human rights. Kerry and colleagues have promised that won’t happen, but U.S. allies and partners clearly remain concerned it will. And CCP officials obviously believe they can coerce such an outcome. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on April 23, “the United States cannot repeatedly challenge China’s rights and interests on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong while expecting China to cooperate with it on issues it cares about.” Negotiation 101 and the school of hard knocks both teach that appearing to want something more than the other side as an “ardent suitor” generates weakness and vulnerability. The Biden administration has not succeeded in dispelling this notion. That needs to change too.

Finally, the United States must completely avoid making climate-related agreements it would honor that are premised on climate-related promises China might break.

By the end of Kerry’s visit, it should be overwhelmingly clear Beijing is trying to take Washington for a ride. This will be the time for a long overdue correction. Kerry can honestly declare he’s done all he possibly could to attempt to cooperate with his direct counterpart—special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua—and other Chinese officials and that he’s exhausted all current mutually productive avenues.

What Kerry needs to do in the runup to COP26 is shift his focus to rallying a coalition of major industrialized democracies, vulnerable coastal states, and other responsible partners to compete with China and impose carbon taxes on its coal-intensive products. That’s the only way to make the CCP change its climate-destructive ways for the good of all and to incentivize it to someday negotiate in good faith and deliver real results.

Real pro-climate progress requires fundamentally shifting the CCP’s calculus by actually altering the economic bottom line on which its power hinges. Climate competition—specifically, leveraging the threat of carbon taxation—is the only Archimedean lever powerful enough to incentivize a timely transformation. This paradigm-shifting approach would curtail China’s latitude for exploitative geopolitical maneuvering and empower its sidelined reformers and environmentalists.

Globally, climate competition supports a whole-of-coalition “race to the top” for pro-climate actions, with the European Union carbon border tax proposal an extant example and U.S. energy and carbon storage technologies a promising way forward. Crucially, climate competition could also anchor the bipartisan domestic support necessary to keep Washington as a reliable long-term climate leader and partner of choice. Finally, it offers on-ramps for China itself to engage more decisively on climate change both domestically and internationally—and to benefit accordingly.

No silver bullet exists, but climate competition offers the most viable means of getting China on a much better road than it’s currently committed to and preserving the planet for future generations. That’s a legacy Kerry and the administration he represents should be proud to pursue for the good of all.

Gabriel B. Collins is the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a visiting scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

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