China and US should ‘use UN to build global climate change consensus’

Catherine Wong
·3-min read

The United Nations is the ideal forum for Beijing and Washington to build the international political will to combat climate change, the UN envoy to China said, ahead of Thursday’s leaders’ summit on the issue.

Siddharth Chatterjee, who became the UN’s Resident Coordinator to China earlier this year, said there were promising signs the international community was heading towards a low-carbon future, and called on the two powers to abandon confrontation and instead build consensus on climate change and other global challenges.

Siddharth Chatterjee, the UN envoy to China, speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia on April 19. Photo: Xinhua
Siddharth Chatterjee, the UN envoy to China, speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia on April 19. Photo: Xinhua

“Instead of confrontation, the UN can be the body to direct the focus of strategic cooperation between China and the US towards global challenges like climate change, pandemic control and humanitarian support,” Chatterjee told the South China Morning Post.

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Climate change is seen as an area where China and the US can work together, despite their escalating rivalry in almost every other aspect of their relations. Last week the two countries pledged to work together to tackle the crisis, after meetings between climate change envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua.

The announcement was followed by confirmation that President Xi Jinping will address dozens of world leaders at the US-led two-day virtual climate summit which begins on Thursday. It will also be the first meeting between the two leaders since Joe Biden assumed the US presidency.

While Washington has intensified efforts to rally its allies against China’s rise, Beijing has positioned itself as the new defender of the multilateral legacy system, highlighting its support for “the central role of the United Nations in international affairs”, and arguing that the UN – rather than the US – should be setting international rules and norms.

Xi highlighted China’s support for the UN when he chose its General Assembly last year to make the bold pledge that China would reach peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Chatterjee described Xi’s pledge as “a welcome and ambitious undertaking”, and said he was also “delighted to see that the US is reassuming its climate leadership role” with the Biden administration bringing the US back into the 2015 Paris Agreement on cutting global carbon emissions.

“Here the central ambition for the UN is to build the coalition of political will needed to reorient the international community towards the quantum policy leap needed for a low-carbon future. We now see promising signs of momentum,” he said.

“Just as China-US cooperation was key to securing the Paris Agreement, constructive dialogue and collaboration on equal terms between the two largest and most polluting economies are critical if we are to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century and limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Tracing China’s climate change journey from denial to decarbonisation

The UN envoy said concrete plans for action were needed from both countries in the coming months. “On the road to COP26 in Glasgow this year, we must accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and dispel the myth that reducing carbon emissions is a threat to economic development.”

The UN’s International Labour Organization estimates the clean energy transition will create 18 million jobs by 2030. China could save up to US$1.6 trillion by scrapping coal over the next 20 years.

“The incentives for companies that rely on low-carbon innovations are massive. Still, this transition must be a just one, bolstered by adequate social protection measures and the up-skilling of workers in emissions-intensive industries,” Chatterjee said.

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