This week, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry spent four days in China in the hopes of facilitating a thaw in U.S.-China climate cooperation and easing tensions between Washington and Beijing more broadly. While the talks did not yield any major breakthroughs, any progress toward a shared climate agenda cannot be taken for granted after nearly two years of frozen relations. And with Kerry announcing plans for more bilateral talks ahead of the next round of U.N. climate negotiations in November, it appears that climate change may offer a tentative path for rebuilding trust between the two world powers.

Special Envoy John Kerry looks at his notes before the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in Washington, D.C. April 23, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)
Special Envoy John Kerry looks at his notes before the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in Washington, D.C. April 23, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

A Shared Interest in Addressing Climate Change

As the two greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and China are foundational to the world’s ability to tackle climate change. Both countries are increasingly feeling the devastating impacts of climate change in their homelands — with extreme heat, floods, drought and sea-level rise leading to humanitarian emergencies and raising the risks to water security and, in the case of China, even food security.

Addressing and preventing these debilitating domestic effects requires an international approach, as no single country can shield itself from the impacts of a global crisis like climate change. This may open up avenues of collaboration between the United States and China, as they share a vested interest in averting worst-case scenarios.  

And while this shared interest might not yield a wide-ranging joint agenda from the start, Special Envoy Kerry’s talks in Beijing did focus on a few areas that can set the stage for future cooperation. The two sides managed to make progress on methane reduction commitments; reducing China’s reliance on coal; China’s objections to trade restrictions on solar panel and battery components; and climate finance.

Another area for future discussion could be the development and deployment of best practices to reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience to climate effects at both the national and sub-national levels, as well as strengthening humanitarian responses and disaster preparedness to address climate emergencies.

At the same time, China and the United States are both increasingly investing in renewable technologies. China’s investment is foremost an industrial policy aimed at making China a leading player in these sectors. But both Chinese and U.S. policymakers have strong incentives to see their nation’s green-tech leaders come out on top in world markets, not least as a means of generating profit from this costly socioeconomic transition.

However, China is also using its geopolitical influence to lock in sources of green minerals. This dash to secure crucial resources has come with reports of environmental and human rights violations. While China is not alone in such accusations, this is a key area of potential cooperation between the United States and China: Improving business practices to reduce the risk of conflict over such abuses.

Broader U.S.-China Tensions Stand in the Way

It’s no secret that U.S.-China relations have been fraught with tension in recent years. Increased confrontation over Taiwan, Russia’s war in Ukraine, rising geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific, and Beijing’s bid to supplant the current multilateral international order are just some of the fronts on which Washington and China have collided. The result has left bilateral ties at a historic low point, with a dangerous number of associated risks.

Some officials on both sides see climate cooperation as low-hanging fruit that can help recalibrate the diplomatic relationship. But while climate and energy accords may be less confrontational than discussions over Taiwan or Ukraine, in many respects they are also just one more diplomatic avenue where both sides walk a delicate tightrope of interests and risk miscommunication.

This balancing act was on full display during Special Envoy Kerry’s visit, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping making sure to clarify to a concurrent national environmental conference that Chinese efforts to decarbonize will be on their own timeline and will not be driven by other countries.

China has long insisted on being considered a “developing country” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and that historical emitters such as the United States and Europe should lead in quickly reducing their own emissions. However, China has already surpassed the United States in annual emissions and surpassed Europe in emissions per person — and is expected to surpass both Europe and the United States in historical emissions by 2040 and 2050, respectively.

And while China has become a leader in the manufacturing and sale of renewable energies, it has continued to invest heavily in coal-powered energy production to fuel growth, with one out of every four tons of coal used globally going toward electricity generation in China.

There are also wider questions around the economic linkages between China and the United States when it comes to renewable energies. China currently dominates the critical minerals industry, particularly in Africa. U.S. policymakers are just now starting to develop a strategy to ensure the future of their own green industries, but the intensified development of these resources — if done without local communities in mind — could not only increase U.S.-China geopolitical competition around the world but could also undermine the stability and security of countries with extensive resource deposits, leading to a higher risk of conflict.

China’s unwillingness to engage on concerns related to the developing world — including its emissions trajectory and global climate finance — threatens its influence with developing countries. Indeed, China is increasingly facing the same sorts of diplomatic pressures from developing countries that the United States and other developed nations face. While this could lead to a shared interest in aligning diplomatic positions to address the concerns of, and to partner, with developing countries, it could also risk further tensions between China and other countries.  

One example of where the United States and China face similar concerns but are unlikely to generate meaningful collaboration in the short term is the stability of the Indo-Pacific region. The countries in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly threatened by climate-related instability and migration, with the Pacific Islands specifically facing catastrophic projections.

At the same time, both the United States and China are building out their influence in this region, leaving some regional leaders concerned that they will be caught in a geopolitical competition between the two world powers that drowns out necessary efforts on climate change.

Although the buildup of navies and coast guards are proof that U.S. and China geopolitical positioning will likely prevent any meaningful cooperation, it is still worth noting that China and the United States likely have shared interests that are currently subsumed under other political imperatives.

Not Starting from Scratch

While it may feel like the United States and China are starting over after a prolonged period of silence on the issue, it’s important to remember that the two sides have made progress on climate cooperation in the past.

Both the United States and China were instrumental in getting other countries onboard for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and climate discussions were an integral part of U.S.-China relations until the most recent diplomatic downturn. While progress toward goals has faltered in recent years, there have been plenty of areas that offer hope for meaningful U.S.-China climate cooperation.

U.S.-China diplomacy desperately needs a less confrontational and more mutually beneficial angle to rebuild trust and lay the foundation to help ease tensions. Working together on climate change could provide some easy and realistic “wins” that allow the broader relationship to begin to heal. However, as Special Envoy Kerry’s trip reveals, such diplomacy will still face challenging issues on which China and the United States will not be willing to see eye-to-eye. Looking for the bright spots where the two countries’ interests align — and they do exist — could be an early steppingstone to open other avenues of collaboration.

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