Climate crisis unlikely to turn rivals China and the US into green collaborators

·8-min read

While China and the United States have a long list of public disagreements, tackling the threat caused by climate change has been regarded as one area of cooperation between the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. But that is also now in dispute.

Instead of collaboration to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and drive a switch to renewable energies, the more likely scenario is that the two biggest economies will aggressively compete in their climate policies, say researchers and analysts.

They point to statements by Chinese officials that indicate cooperation with Washington to meet the climate challenge is unlikely while the two nations are so deeply divided on other fronts, including on trade, human rights, tit-for-tat sanctions and intensifying shows of force around the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

The US has said areas of conflict with China should be ring-fenced from climate discussions, a position that does not fly in Beijing, said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

“China not agreeing to have the climate talks in a separate sandbox was completely predictable,” said Myllyvirta. “The EU and the US have had the pipe dream of making climate a stand-alone issue. Anyone who’s had even a cursory look at China’s foreign policy knows that absolutely is not how China works.”

China’s renewable energy capacity poised to outstrip fossil fuel’s

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman got that message when she met vice-foreign minister Xie Feng in China on July 26. Xie told her that Washington should not expect Beijing’s unconditional cooperation while it “suppresses and contains China”.

Working together on matters such as climate, Iran’s nuclear programme and others would be preconditioned on a “favourable atmosphere in bilateral relations,” Xie said.

Bargaining chips?

John Kerry, the climate diplomacy tsar for the US, gave a speech on July 20 during a visit to Britain in which he noted the many disputes between China and the US. “But on climate, cooperation – it is the only way to break free from the world’s current mutual suicide pact,” he said.

However, during a White House briefing some months earlier in January, Kerry had said disputes with China over the South China Sea or intellectual property were not bargaining chips for Beijing’s cooperation on climate change.

“Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen,” he said.

There was a follow-through on that position in June, when Washington banned imports of solar panel materials made by a Chinese company that the US alleged was using forced labour in China’s far-west region of Xinjiang.

Myllyvirta in Helsinki said while there seemed to be little opportunity for collaboration between the US and China, competition for technological leadership, international influence and alliances could be at least as strong a driving force for decarbonisation as cooperation.

Asked whether collaboration with China on climate was in jeopardy, a US administration official briefing reporters on August 2 said Washington would “continue to point out the advantages [of cooperation].”

Domestic heat

Byford Tsang, a climate diplomacy expert at British-based climate change think tank E3G, said some of the climate rhetoric from Beijing might be for domestic consumption, coming at a time of rising nationalism in China.

“In these diplomatic meetings, there’s always the need to serve both a diplomatic purpose, but also an internal communication purpose,” he said regarding the Sherman-Xie meeting in July.

China, climate change and the shared self-interest behind carbon cuts

Tsang said there was some evidence that China was willing to engage with the US, pointing to a joint working group on climate that Beijing and Washington reportedly agreed to establish earlier this year. The two governments are also co-chairing a G20 panel to study climate-related financial risk.

And Kerry told the Bloomberg news service in July he was planning a trip to China at the end of August for further talks about the potential for working together on climate challenges.

But Tsang did acknowledge the souring of the broader China-US relationship would undermine collaborative research and development on advanced climate-related technologies.

“Frontier technologies like batteries, like green hydrogen, like smart grids, would be the ones that cooperation is less likely,” said Tsang, citing both countries’ ambitions to become market leaders and set standards in those areas.

Climate ambitions

Those ambitions are evident in grand foreign policy strategies such as China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, according to climate policy analyst Myllyvirta.

“When you talk about a ‘green’ belt and road, the progress on preventing dirty projects has been slow … [but a lot] more effort is being put into renewable energy projects … and that means you’re training engineers in that country … so you’re building a foothold for your technology in those countries,” he said.

Climate change also featured prominently when the US-led response to the Belt and Road Initiative was announced in June.

The Build Back Better World (B3W) partnership, launched by the US and other Group of Seven nations, plans to funnel hundreds of billions of dollars of environmentally-friendly infrastructure investment to low- and middle-income countries, according to a fact sheet published by the White House.

While details are sparse, Myllyvirta said the US and the EU should focus on clean energy as a counterpoint to some of the “dirty projects” financed by the belt and road.

“Outcompeting coal plants with clean energy would definitely be a big win for the EU and the US,” he said. However, he stressed that China’s own plans for clean energy are ambitious.

“It’s all about developing new industries, capturing leadership in new industries, making sure China’s strategic industries are ready for the new century and for the carbon-constrained world and so on.”

China leading

Recent analyses have begun to take stock of the competitive playing field to mitigate the threats from climate change.

MacroPolo, a Chicago-based think tank, released an index in July that tracked countries’ performances as they shifted their energy sources from fossil fuel to renewables.

The index looks at each country’s production and export of three key climate technologies – wind turbines, solar panels, and lithium-ion batteries – as well as the pace of transition towards renewable energy. Currently, China is ranked first in the index while the US came fourth, behind Brazil and Germany.

Jian Roachell, co-creator of the index, said that even though the era of fossil-fuel-free energy was a long way off, China had the most to gain from the transition to renewables.

Unchecked emissions to make Earth hotter sooner, UN experts say

China’s ambitions to dominate clean technologies were helping to accelerate decarbonisation around the world, Roachell said.

“Just by sheer size, China has already decreased the global price of solar panels by a third, if you are trying to make everyone adopt these renewable technologies it’s definitely a good thing,” he said.

The US may still lead in terms of innovation but China’s manufacturing capabilities and plentiful supply of rare earth metals used to improve efficiency in renewable energy technology meant many countries were becoming dependent on China, Roachell said.

Doing the job

Kathryn Porter, founder of British-based independent energy consultancy Watt-Logic, is not convinced that US-China climate competition is a benefit in a world in which renewables are only a small fraction of the energy supply chain.

China might have all the resources to become a leader in green technology, but the fact it is still building coal power stations suggests its leaders understand the social risks of pushing forward a full transition to renewables.

Porter said 100 per cent renewables would only be possible when energy generated could be stored in bulk as electricity to be used at nighttime, but the technology for that did not yet exist.

“That’s really why China is building all these coal power stations. It’s not because it’s anti-renewables, it’s because it knows perfectly well that if it’s not windy and it’s nighttime, all the renewables in the world aren’t going to help.”

Li Shuo, a Beijing-based senior global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia, said China had evolved from a renewables sceptic at the turn of the century to now being in the driver’s seat of global climate-change efforts.

He said changing dynamics in the relationship between the US and China might see them try to outdo each other in cutting emissions, but all that finally mattered was getting the job done.

“If competition is the only politically viable way to frame this issue to propel their actions, then let it be,’’ Li said. “I don’t care if this is hawkish as long as this gives me carbon reduction.”

This article Climate crisis unlikely to turn rivals China and the US into green collaborators first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting