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Climate Policy: The One Thing China and the US Can Agree On?

On March 18th, 2021, representatives from China and the United States met at a summit in Alaska for the first meeting between the two world powers since the Biden administration took office. Reports leading up to the meeting were riddled with headlines like “Climate Offers a Glimmer of Hope for U.S.-China Cooperation.” Climate discussions were one of the only positive signs to come out of the reunion, as the meeting also clarified that the relationship between the two countries is taut with tensions. Hopefully, though, when it comes to climate policy, the two countries will be able to set aside political differences and focus on the issue at hand.

China and the United States are the world’s two largest carbon emitters, with their combined emissions accounting for 43% of global emissions. This makes their cooperation and focus on climate change and lowering emissions imperative to the whole globe’s ability to meet future climate goals. China, for their part, committed in September 2020 to have carbon emissions peak before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. While stocks of Chinese renewable energy increased following this announcement, there are still questions over whether the country will be able to meet this goal. Economists have estimated that this would take $5 – $20 trillion over the next 30 years, and 90% of China’s energy supply would have to be renewable or nuclear by 2050 for this to work. However, it may be easier for China to implement these policies than it would be in a more democratic state because of the control that the Chinese government has over the implementation of new policies in the impacted industries. The government is able to make top-down mandates that help create demand and subsidies for things like electric cars to an extent that would be much more difficult to achieve in the U.S.. 

China setting more ambitious climate goals, coupled with a new, American administration committed to strengthening climate policy, may prove to be the combination needed to push the U.S. to make similar environmental commitments. Additionally, Biden’s special climate envoy, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, have a long established relationship when it comes to climate, having worked together during the Obama administration. This all stands as a good reason to predict more cooperation between the two countries when it comes to climate, and the summit in Alaska proved that this may in fact be one of the only issues the two countries can agree on, as long as politics don’t get in the way of progress. 

The Alaska summit further clarified that the two countries consider themselves to be in some form of a competition as two of the world’s largest powers, and as representatives of democracy and authoritarianism. This competition typically manifested itself in economic or militaristic ways during the Trump administration, but the meeting made it clear “that competition seems likely to extend beyond conventional arenas such as military capabilities, trade relations, and diplomatic engagement, and into the more abstract realm of values.” Included in that “abstract realm of values” is one big topic: climate change. Kerry has clarified that he doesn’t think climate change should be involved in negotiations or competitions between the two countries, but should instead be addressed as a stand-alone issue. However, if climate makes it into this competition between the two countries, it could serve to incentivize the U.S. to take more aggressive actions towards carbon neutrality and other climate policies. 

While climate appeared to be an issue the two countries are willing to work together on in the future, no substantial advancements on climate arose from the Alaska Summit. China did report that they had agreed to form a “joint working group” on climate, but the U.S. came back on this, saying that they had discussed it, but that nothing had been finalized. Both countries were at a multinational meeting on climate following the Alaska talks, but there was no further discussion there between the two.

With a new administration that is willing to make progress on climate policy, and with the Chinese government showing similar ambitions, the coming months and years will be very important for the future of our climate. The countries can inspire each other to do better or can work together to create a real impact. Either way, Chinese and American decision-making will influence other countries around the globe. Japan is already rethinking their climate goals since Biden took office, and India is likely to follow China’s example. In the coming years, it will be important to pay attention to how these countries approach climate change and to hold them accountable to any promises that they make.

Works cited 

Arvin, J. (2021, March 19). How the US and China can jump-start cooperation on climate change. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/22319488/china-biden-alaska-blinken-climate-change

Ben Judah, T. S. (7365, January 01). Great Power Competition Is Not Enough. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/22/great-power-competition-china-united-states/

Geman, B. (2021, March 22). Alaska talks reveal the tense relationship between U.S. and China on climate change. Retrieved from https://www.axios.com/china-climate-change-united-states-alaska-ce57d6b8-9dcb-4941-8d5c-7f35e6beca3e.html

Hua, S., & Mauldin, W. (2021, March 22). WSJ News Exclusive | U.S., China Climate Envoys to Meet Despite Frosty Alaska Talks. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-climate-envoys-to-meet-despite-frosty-alaska-talks-11616409414

Liu, M. (2021, March 16). Climate Offers a Glimmer of Hope for U.S.-China Cooperation. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/16/climate-change-china-united-states-cooperation/

Smith, E. (2021, April 01). U.S. and China’s next economic battle will be over climate change, experts say. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/01/us-and-chinas-next-economic-battle-will-be-over-climate-change-experts-say.html

US envoy John Kerry takes part in climate change summit co-hosted by China. (2021, March 23). Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3126708/us-envoy-john-kerry-takes-part-climate-change-summit-co-hosted

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