The central debate between scholars and analysts in recent years on the relationship between the world’s two largest carbon emitters—the United States and China—has been whether cooperation, competition, or some combination thereof is best for the planet. Over the same period, relations between the two powers have sunk to new lows, and there are vocal constituencies that see any engagement as futile—or worse, appeasement.
As a result, collective hopes for an enduring partnership between the United States and China on climate have been repeatedly dashed. For every step forward in the last two years on climate, there has been a step back. Early signs of a broader stabilization following November’s bilateral meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali faded with February’s spy balloon incident, which also thwarted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s follow-up visit to Beijing. But against this backdrop, climate has reemerged as a potentially helpful vanguard issue.
With special presidential envoy John Kerry making his latest call for the two countries to work together despite their differences and uncertainty surrounding whether Xi will participate in a virtual climate summit for world leaders expected to be convened by Biden on April 20, the debate is starting anew. It may be that we see Kerry back in Beijing as a diplomatic entrée ahead of cooperation, or at least the discussion of it, in other areas. In this way, climate can help stabilize the broader U.S.-China relationship.
Kerry’s appointment at the start of the Biden administration and Beijing selecting as his counterpart its own elder statesman, Xie Zhenhua, led to great expectations for the bilateral relationship on climate. The objective Kerry articulated in his first week on the job was that climate be treated as a “critical standalone issue” between the two powers, and Xie provided an appropriate interlocutor for Kerry to engage with on this rather than leaving him with the same dilemma Henry Kissinger faced decades earlier when he wanted to call Europe. Importantly, Xie was also someone who had the requisite cache within the internal Chinese system as a former top official of the all-powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and he had played the envoy role previously.
Unfortunately, the broader Chinese foreign and national security establishment never agreed to isolating climate from the rest of the bilateral agenda. It was thought that geopolitics should be the tail that wagged the climate dog, not the reverse. Or, as then-State Councilor Wang Yi told Kerry during his first visit to Beijing, climate cannot be an “oasis” surrounded by a desert.
Nevertheless, by the end of 2021, the fruit of Kerry and Xie’s personal labors had at least resulted in a new U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, to which they agreed on the sidelines of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. The declaration achieved a number of important outcomes, including tying China to an arguably more accountable bilateral process on reducing methane emissions. It also contributed to reestablishing a bilateral working group that anchored technical cooperation across a number of domains.
What it didn’t do was address the question of isolating climate within the bilateral relationship. Which is why then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last August gave Beijing an opportunity to suspend engagement across a number of domains, including climate. From China’s perspective, a red line had been crossed and nothing—including climate—was immune.
Since then, there have been several attempts by Kerry and Xie to pick up the pieces, but none have prevailed. While Kerry, Xie, and their teams remain in close touch, their unprecedented level of engagement is yet to cross into cooperation and is not likely to without some degree of certainty as to its longevity. Nor has it sparked a genuinely helpful competitive race in areas such as financial support for countries that are eager to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. These countries include, for instance, those in Southeast Asia where Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative investments in coal-fired power stations had been most significant.
Even during the thorniest periods of U.S.-China relations in the last two years, Xie himself has always personally shown a disposition toward cooperation when the rest of the system is more constrained. He and Kerry spoke again as recently as last week and agreed to get together as soon as possible. Still, the fact is that while China has had several Damascene moments in the last decade on climate—not least being held responsible for the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 and the domestic imperative of rising air pollution—it never really seized the geopolitical vacuum created once former U.S. President Donald Trump formally announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement six years ago.
Xi is still yet to deliver a dedicated address on climate change domestically and on the importance of climate leadership internationally. Instead, his preferred focus, like his predecessor, is on “ecological civilization,” or cleaning up China’s natural environment. Historically, this has been the key bugbear of the Chinese people, but the issue is of course no longer one-dimensional. Xi’s relative silence at home helps explain why the Chinese instruments in the machinery of state, such as the latest Five-Year Plan, and even the birth of a new Ministry of Ecology and Environment, have still not established credible domestic roadmaps for their carbon goals. And why, despite Xi’s words to international forums about the need for action, the domestic system is yet to really kick into gear.
Without change, Beijing will continue to finds itself wrongly footed and increasingly isolated internationally on climate. At the 2021 climate talks in Glasgow, China teamed up with India to weaken language on phasing out coal that, remarkably, the rest of the world was prepared to go along with. And at the 2022 climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, China risked standing in the way of a key ask of many of its smaller developing compatriots to establish a loss-and-damage fund to address the irreversible impacts of climate change, clinging to old arguments on the bifurcation of responsibilities between developed and developing countries and unfulfilled pledges from the former. Now the question is whether they will contribute to the fund.
But there is a newfound urgency to the two powers finding a way through on climate. First, there are lingering questions as to Xie’s longevity in his role, having been brought out of retirement—a rare occurrence in the Chinese bureaucracy. There are questions, too, about Kerry’s own longevity in his role, beyond his pledge to Biden to serve through to the end of 2023. Who else, on both sides of the Pacific, has their cross-governmental and geopolitical clout?
The greater urgency is the looming possibility of a Republican in the White House come 2025 and what that would mean for the Paris climate agreement, given it is easy political fodder for the conservative base on the campaign trail. While the agreement was able to be kept on life support after Trump’s withdrawal, it would likely go into cardiac arrest if another U.S. president decided to bring back into question the commitment of the world’s largest historical emitter.
Plus, for the Chinese, the breathtaking scope of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States has changed the game—it means Washington is not just talking the talk on climate leadership but is now walking the walk, shining an even brighter spotlight on what Beijing should now do itself. Given these factors, you would think that from Beijing’s perspective carving out some degree of cooperation on climate would at least help hedge against being pigeonholed as a laggard both internationally and by its own citizens. In other words, this is in Beijing’s interests. And the good news is that the proposed roadmap outlined by the two countries’ Glasgow Declaration—first exemplified by the 2014 experience when then-President Barack Obama and Xi were able to make a joint announcement on climate—is still there to be dusted off.
The reason a formally established framework is important is because it creates trust and an evidence base, which then lays the groundwork for practical cooperation. In the Obama era, that working group came over time to have nine work streams (vehicles; smart grids; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; energy efficiency measures; emissions data; forests; cities; fuel switching; and green ports and vessels), and both sides were supported by research agencies. In the case of the United States, that was the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and for China, the Energy Research Institute. These agencies helped ensure eyes remained squarely on the substance and not the politics. In 2023, agricultural policy, food-waste management, and electric vehicles should be added to that list at least. By identifying specific new projects, initiatives, or other areas for cooperation across these fields, both countries will be free to focus on the essence of the problem rather than the politics.
Ultimately, there is no binary choice to be made between cooperation and competition on climate. As the new U.S. National Security Strategy smartly highlights, what’s best for the planet (and the United States) is likely both, in careful balance. But we must protect the process from the geopolitics of the day. This is also why climate remains the best path for a wider stabilization effort, compared to, say, nuclear disarmament, the global economy, or even pandemic management. None of those are as bereft of politics as climate cooperation can be. Yet absent an agreed framework for this technical cooperation, such engagement remains piecemeal, anchored at the political level, and highly vulnerable to the strategic circumstances of the day.
Creating the political space for both countries to get back to where they were in the middle of 2022, prior to Pelosi’s visit, is the critical task ahead. Competing on climate will only get the two countries so far. Cooperating on climate could help save the planet, and it could also be the strategic guardrail that helps save the broader U.S.-China relationship from careering off the tracks.