US-China climate cooperation rests on action at home

We as a world community urgently need to act on climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2018 Special Report found that even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming will lead to even greater storms, agricultural damage, and destruction of ecosystems than we are seeing now. To hold to that level would require a 45-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Even the more modest 2-degree rise that the world agreed to in 2009 at Copenhagen, and which would lead to even more fires, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and other disasters, would require a 25 percent reduction by 2030. Simply put, we need huge reductions, and we don’t have much time.

The commitments countries made under the 2015 Paris Agreement didn’t put the world on a trajectory to achieve this level of reductions—far from it—but the agreement put in place a process for regularly reviewing climate data and increasing country commitments over time. However, hardly had the ink dried on the Paris Agreement when Donald Trump was elected President and decided not just to leave Paris but also to roll back the substantial efforts the Obama administration had made to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Trump trashed Obama’s Clean Power Plan and rolled back vehicle fuel economy standards, the latter over the objections of the auto industry.

While Trump moved America backwards on climate, the rest of the world moved forward, but more slowly than it might have with dedicated American leadership. Climate change poses a classic collective action problem: we all benefit if we all work together, but there is a temptation to cheat and leave the hard work to others. With the United States flagrantly failing to work with the collective, countries around the world continued with programs that might benefit them domestically, worrying that making more strenuous efforts to prevent climate change would be for naught because of U.S. inaction. The European Union, for example, may miss its 2030 emissions target.

China has continued to work on climate action. It followed through on its cap on coal consumption, continued to encourage energy efficiency and wind and solar energy, and adopted strict vehicle emissions standards that address both local pollution and carbon. President Xi Jinping also was out in front committing China to the Paris Agreement regardless of U.S. decisions. But local air pollution, which is quite bad in China and has a more immediate negative effect than climate change on the Chinese people’s health and welfare, was an even greater focus. Many of the technologies China has chosen to use for power plants and industry—the same ones widespread in the United States—address local air pollution but do nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Thus, while China has made some progress, one could hardly describe the last three and a half years as producing the kind of step change we will need to avert major climate disasters. With more than four times the U.S. population, China produced slightly less than twice as much carbon dioxide as the United States in 2019.

The United States has now twice negotiated agreements to which it then failed to adhere—first the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that President George W. Bush scrapped, and then the Paris Agreement. No other country in the world has such a dismal record of withdrawing from environmental agreements.

If it takes office in January, a Biden-Harris administration promises bold action on climate change domestically and to renew U.S. leadership on the issue internationally. Bold action at home is imperative. What is critical is to ensure that such action comes first, and that international leadership follow America’s domestic example. The United States has now twice negotiated agreements to which it then failed to adhere—first the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that President George W. Bush scrapped, and then the Paris Agreement. No other country in the world has such a dismal record of withdrawing from environmental agreements. Many Democrats will dismiss these concerns, since it is Republican Presidents who abandoned these agreements, but America’s negotiating partners do not see it that way. They want to see reliable U.S. commitments. That means we need to enshrine climate action in U.S. domestic law before we jump forward to lead in the international arena.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has offered two different climate proposals. His more recent proposal, the Build Back Better Plan that derived from the joint task forces he organized with Senator Bernie Sanders, is a transformative plan focused on building green infrastructure and jobs in the United States. If a Biden administration could adopt that $2 trillion plan into law, the rest of the world, including China, would recognize that the United States has made a long-term commitment to solving the climate crisis and also feel U.S. competition in the development of cutting-edge green industries.

But the Biden campaign website also includes the Biden Plan For a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice, which contains some elements from his Build Back Better plan but also from his original plan during the primaries. This plan is more outward facing and outward blaming. The plan says it will stop other countries from “cheating on their climate commitments.” It’s not clear who is cheating or how, and such an emphasis does not make much sense when the United States is the one not adhering to international agreements it has made.

The plan contains a number of dated or incorrect assessments of China. For example, it vows to stop China from acting as a destination for polluting industries, a story from perhaps 2005 that does not reflect China’s current pollution regulations or its interest in moving up the value chain. The policy also accuses China of “subsidizing coal exports,” but China’s coal has been at market rates for years and China exports one-tenth the amount of coal as does the United States. If Biden’s team wanted to focus on coal exports, it might look to the world’s number-one exporter, Australia, a U.S. ally that goes unmentioned in the document. Although the plan raises legitimate questions about the types of infrastructure projects entailed in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, they will find a better audience if the United States remains focused and up-to-date in its concerns about China and if it walks the walk before it talks so much talk.

The Build Back Better plan, and the Green New Deal concepts that inspire it, generate real interest in China and around the world. If the United States can lead by example rather than rhetoric, it has a chance to reinvigorate the international climate process and enact deep and meaningful carbon reductions. The merit of the Build Back Better approach is that it will jumpstart competition in newer, greener technologies. Chinese competition will not disappear, nor should it. What would be ideal is if the United States, China, and many other countries all try to outdo each other with clean energy technologies and carbon reduction strategies.