Can the US and China solve the climate crisis for us?

US-China pledges to work together on climate action have been all too familiar, throughout times of changing US administrations and tense US-China relations. Even as cajoling each power to take more action has its limits, the greater danger is a global green technology war that punishes the global south.
People involved in climate activism hold a demonstration in the Financial District of Manhattan to demand an end to fossil fuel funding by Wall Street and the American government on 18 September 2023 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
People involved in climate activism hold a demonstration in the Financial District of Manhattan to demand an end to fossil fuel funding by Wall Street and the American government on 18 September 2023 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

The short answer to whether the US and China can solve the climate crisis for us, is a resounding “Of course not!” The challenges of climate change that everybody on this Earth encounters require true global action and international cooperation. But as the leading historical emitter and current champion of greenhouse gas emissions respectively, the US and China could pave the way for international action and set an example for other nations.

An on-off cycle

In November 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood together in Beijing to make a historic US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, emphasising their personal commitment to a successful climate agreement in Paris and marking a new era of multilateral climate diplomacy. This announcement was reaffirmed during Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit to Washington, DC, which in turn helped both countries to negotiate constructively and support the path-breaking Paris Agreement adopted by 196 Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, on 12 December 2015.

A Trump interlude

Unfortunately, Donald Trump was elected president of the US in 2016, and he promptly acknowledged the support he received from coal miners and fossil fuel lobbies by withdrawing the US government's participation in the Paris Agreement. The US contribution of US$3 billion to the UN’s Green Climate Fund was also terminated, significantly reducing the financial resources available for mitigation efforts in developing countries. 

Men stand by a car near a coal-fired power plant in Shanghai, China, 21 October 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Men stand by a car near a coal-fired power plant in Shanghai, China, 21 October 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)

In the meantime, China’s climate change strategy had evolved to fulfill its Nationally Determined Commitments under the Paris Agreement. Therefore, China and the European Union became important driving forces of climate negotiations, and when Xi Jinping announced that China would aim to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and be carbon-neutral by 2060 at a UN meeting in September 2020, China was seen as a major protagonist of the Paris Agreement.

Biden and Kerry return the US to climate negotiations 

Following the 2020 US presidential election, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris agreement on 20 January 2021. He also appointed John F. Kerry to the post of special presidential envoy for climate. As secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s administration, Kerry helped steer the negotiations for the Paris Agreement, and he had developed fine relations over the years with China's special envoy for climate change Xie Zhenhua. 

Kerry and Xie held a meeting in Shanghai in April 2021, after which they issued a joint statement confirming that the US and China were committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis. In addition, the statement confirmed their joint efforts to develop by COP26 in Glasgow 2021 long-term strategies aimed at net-zero GHG emissions/carbon neutrality, with the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact to help keep the temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius and to commit climate finance for the least developed countries. 

Altogether, it seemed that the US and China were on track in supporting climate policies together again.  

Enter Nancy Pelosi

And then Nancy Pelosi decided to visit Taiwan 2-3 August 2022. Although the visit had no connection to climate at all, China subsequently decided to cancel future meetings on climate change between the two countries. This sanction lasted until Kerry and Xie held unofficial talks during the following climate summit, known as COP27, in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. 

... China’s top diplomat Wang Yi held that climate could not be separated from broader concerns in the relationship. 

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua before a meeting in Beijing, China, 17 July 2023. (Valerie Volcovici/Reuters)
US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua before a meeting in Beijing, China, 17 July 2023. (Valerie Volcovici/Reuters)

The roller coaster of US-China climate policy talks and cooperation then moved on, with a new phase of thaw during the spring of 2023. This culminated in Kerry’s visit to Beijing for talks with Xie and other leading officials in July 2023 involving two tracks, with one focused on national action on climate change and the other on COP28 talks in Dubai later this year. During the official meetings, Kerry argued that China and the US could use climate cooperation to redefine their troubled relationship and lead the way in tackling global warming, but China’s top diplomat Wang Yi held that climate could not be separated from broader concerns in the relationship. 

These broader concerns naturally include the deteriorating geopolitical environment and the intensity of the US-China tech war. 

Geopolitical tensions

Chinese plans to support indigenous innovation and the development of emerging strategic sectors, such as the “Made in China 2025” plan launched in 2015, had already elicited strongly negative reactions from many US observers and politicians, even before Trump launched a US-China trade war in January 2018. The trade war quickly morphed into a series of US sanctions against Chinese digital technology firms such as Huawei, ZTE and Hikvision. 

The Biden administration has continued and intensified this policy, hitting the exports of advanced semiconductor technologies based on US intellectual property or components with sanctions launched by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS).

Time will tell whether or not these measures are effectively reducing China’s ability to develop advanced microelectronics and software such as artificial intelligence (AI), but the intentions behind US measures have been very explicit, and have clearly persuaded the Chinese leadership that the US wants to block China’s economic development

This new geopolitical context of a fight to be the “leading superpower” has cast a shadow over the possibilities for US and China working together to reduce the emissions that are driving climate change...

People watch exhibits during the World Semiconductor Congress in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China on 19 July 2023. (AFP)
People watch exhibits during the World Semiconductor Congress in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, on 19 July 2023. (AFP)

Politicians in the US and its allies have become equally worried about the influence of China internationally. There have been serious discussions about “decoupling”, or “de-risking” — whatever that means — in their relations with China, with the result that academic cooperation with Chinese organisations is subject to increasingly hostile supervision and international businesses feel under pressure to abandon supply chains related to China.   

US-China cooperation?

This new geopolitical context of a fight to be the “leading superpower” has cast a shadow over the possibilities for US and China working together to reduce the emissions that are driving climate change, regardless of Kerry’s assertion that “the world and the climate crisis demand that we make progress rapidly and significantly [and] it is vital that we come together to take action”, or Xie stating that “exchanges on climate and the green transition could contribute to improving China-US bilateral relations”. 

Many of the themes discussed in recent US-China discussions have been familiar — to the point of tedium. The US side wanted China to reduce its reliance on coal, abandon its status as a developing country (which was granted in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997), and implement plans for curbing methane emissions.

The Chinese side reiterated its demands that the US, as a historical major emitter, should contribute more to financing climate action in developing countries, follow a “reasonable, pragmatic and positive” policy towards China, and desist from dictating what China should do. In Xi Jinping’s formulation: “The pathway and means for reaching this goal, and the tempo and intensity, should be and must be determined by ourselves, and never under the sway of others.”

Getting nationalistic over clean technologies

Notwithstanding these postures, there appear to be quite a few areas where the competence and experience of the US and China are complementary. In terms of research and development (R&D) competence, the US has long been leading in developing clean and sustainable technologies, while China has been catching up in the production of renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels. Indeed, one of the most successful US-China scientific collaborations has been the US$150 million US-China Clean Energy Research Center, a flagship initiative funded in equal parts by the US and China. 

This cooperation helped China develop clean technologies, but the sentiment has changed and current US policies may undermine such cooperation. For example, the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022 contains US$500 billion in new spending and tax breaks that aim to boost clean energy, its provisions emphasise the domestic origin of components or raw materials, thus explicitly excluding supply chains in China.

China’s strength in the production of clean energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels has surely relied on techno-nationalist industrial policies, but one wonders whether it is helpful for climate change mitigation that the US shifts to the same brand of techno-nationalist policies

... it is sad to observe that the building blocks of advanced microelectronics, semiconductors and AI have become battlegrounds when some of the leading nations should exploit the synergy of R&D cooperation.

This photo taken on 12 September 2023 shows a general view of solar panels in the desert in Zhangye, Gansu province, China. (AFP)
This photo taken on 12 September 2023 shows a general view of solar panels in the desert in Zhangye, Gansu province, China. (AFP)

In other words, the development of R&D cooperation and improved complementary division of labour in clean technologies between China and the US is contradicted by what Biden can get support for from the US Congress. Instead of focusing on the relatively mature industries that China emphasised during a period of Trumpian climate denialism, the focus should be on advanced clean technologies.

One US observer has thus argued that there would be more mileage for the US in regaining its technological edge in the other industries that will be needed as decarbonisation advances towards 2050, such as green hydrogen, green steel, carbon capture, advanced geothermal systems and advanced nuclear power.

Given that digital technologies such as automation and AI are likely to benefit future industries and welfare, and offer possibilities for reducing carbon emissions, it is sad to observe that the building blocks of advanced microelectronics, semiconductors and AI have become battlegrounds when some of the leading nations should exploit the synergy of R&D cooperation.

For example, integrating renewable energy sources such as wind and solar in advanced power supply systems requires ultra-high voltage transmission systems, but also digital control systems that can link producers and consumers in a matter of a micro-seconds — including advanced AI.

The emissions juggernaut

My point so far has been that mankind could benefit more from cooperation — rather than competition — on ways and means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that it is harmful to engage in an on-off cycle of political will to seriously support mitigation in both China and the US.

Both countries have vested interests and lobbies that are likely to resist drastic measures.

But even if we can imagine an amiable cooperation between China and the US on climate policies, the question is how much each can do domestically to achieve substantial emission reductions in the short term. The prospects are grim. Both countries have vested interests and lobbies that are likely to resist drastic measures.

An aerial view of the machinery at the coal terminal of Huanghua port, in Hebei province, China, 1 February 2023. (China Daily via Reuters)
An aerial view of the machinery at the coal terminal of Huanghua port, in Hebei province, China, 1 February 2023. (China Daily via Reuters)

The US has become a leading consumer as well as exporter of oil, and although shale gas may have brought some relief for the total emissions, a full decarbonisation of the economy by 2050 appears to require a complete turnaround in policies on transport, agriculture and energy — but precisely these policies are likely to encounter strong resistance.

The Chinese pledge to reach zero carbon emissions by 2060 also appears to require policy decisions that will encounter resistance, for example in energy supply where local governments continue to erect two new coal plants per week in order to avoid blackouts, and regional electricity networks continue to find it hard to integrate renewable energy sources.

Lifestyle choices

While population growth in both countries has declined significantly, the generations that reach old age and retire will wish to maintain or further develop a high-carbon lifestyle — such as driving large cars and flying long distances, eating a meat-based diet, and in general, continuing consumption with a large carbon footprint. Under the present circumstances and with the current technological infrastructure, such lifestyles will be challenged by policies that substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking of lifestyles, one also has to consider vast populations in the south that would dearly wish to live a life in a similar lifestyle. In principle, green technologies that could support a similar level of welfare based on a low-carbon lifestyle exist, but the capacity to develop and deploy such technologies is still concentrated in the US, Europe, Japan, and now China too.

If the US-China tech war spills over into a global green technology war and the pledges to transfer clean technology to the south made during numerous climate summits remain on paper, the chances of humanity bringing the rising global temperature to a close are slim, regardless of US-China political intrigues.

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