Can China and the US overcome their distrust on climate action?

Jacob Fromer
·4-min read

As the US waits to learn if President Xi Jinping will attend a virtual White House climate summit later this month, analysts warn the two countries still have a deep and mutual distrust to overcome about each other’s commitment to saving the environment.

President Joe Biden issued the invitation last week, in a sign his administration has not ruled out working with Beijing to try and solve the looming global crisis. The White House did not respond to an inquiry about whether Xi had accepted, while the Chinese embassy in Washington said Xi’s foreign agenda would be announced by Beijing.

On the US side, analysts say the distrust comes in part from watching China – which announced a carbon neutrality pledge by the year 2060 – continue to build new coal power plants around the world, a major source of pollution.

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Coal is the “dominant destination for China’s overseas energy investment,” said Cecilia Han Springer, senior researcher at Boston University’s Global China Initiative. “Biden’s commitment to phasing out public finance for fossil fuels overseas is putting pressure on some other countries, like Japan, to do the same,” she said. “Such a parallel commitment from China would be very surprising to me – welcome, but surprising.”

China, meanwhile, will wonder if Washington’s re-commitment to the Paris climate agreement will be temporary or permanent, analysts said. Biden rejoined the agreement on his first day in office, reversing the decision by his predecessor Donald Trump to leave the deal.

“I would expect the Chinese would like to see forward movement” from the US, said Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. “President Biden just proposed his infrastructure plan,” she added, referring to the US$2 trillion package announced on Wednesday that – if passed by Congress – would include billions of dollars to reduce emissions in the US. “This is precisely what delivering means.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she wanted the bill to clear the House chamber by July 4, US Independence Day, but it is unclear what the legislation will ultimately look like after any amendments by Congress.

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The White House has said the US will announce an “ambitious 2030 emissions target” under the Paris agreement ahead of the April 22-23 summit. “In his invitation, the president urged leaders to use the summit as an opportunity to outline how their countries also will contribute to stronger climate ambition,” it said.

Invitations have also gone out to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan.

If Xi does attend, it will be the first time he and Biden meet, even virtually, as leaders of the world’s two biggest economies and emitters. The two men spent many hours together a decade ago when they were both vice-presidents.

Despite worsening US-China relations, Washington and Beijing do not yet appear to have given up on the possibility of collaborating in some form on climate issues, even if they remain at odds on nearly every other aspect of the relationship.

In mid-March, senior Washington and Beijing diplomats met for the first time in Alaska and, after verbal sparring in front of television cameras, ultimately agreed to form a “joint working group” on climate change.

A few days later, Biden’s top climate official John Kerry joined a virtual meeting on climate change co-hosted by China – though according to the State Department Kerry had “no plans” to meet with his Chinese counterpart during the event. As secretary of state under president Barack Obama, Kerry helped negotiate the Paris accord.

Kelly Sims Gallagher, academic dean and director of the climate policy lab at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said the two countries needed to maintain an open dialogue. “They need to have clear and complete understandings of each other so that mistrust does not accumulate,” she said. “I do not think that cooperation is necessary at this juncture, but coordination and dialogue are essential.”

According to David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, the US-China relationship will need time to rebuild. “We can’t imagine that things are going to reset in some automatic way to the dynamic that there was before Paris, in terms of cooperation on climate,” he said.

“It may take a bit to get back to that kind of fully cooperative and fully aligned relationship between the two. I would stress though, from the perspective of the world as a whole, we need these two countries – the two largest emitters – to find a path forward, and find ways to align their actions.”

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