The US-China climate deal was a bright spot in an otherwise thorny relationship. Should it be repaired?


One of the biggest surprises at last year’s UN climate summit came in the form of a handshake.

US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua did just that at COP26 in Glasgow when they announced a commitment to cooperate on the climate crisis. The countries pledged to work together to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, and China pledged to release a plan to reduce its emissions of methane, a potent planet-warming gas, which it delivered this week.

The terms of the agreement were not very specific and did not include many measurable action points. But the deal was still widely applauded as a step in the right direction in an otherwise contentious geopolitical relationship.

It didn’t last long.

The new cooperation broke down abruptly in August when China suspended climate talks with the US, one of several measures it took in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip in Taiwan.

The question now is whether COP27 in Egypt can provide the impetus needed to repair the countries’ relationship with climate change. At an event hosted by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Kerry said he has spoken with Xie this week, though they have not had a formal meeting.

“We need to be talking to each other because we are the two largest economies in the world and the two largest emitters in the world,” Kerry said at the event. “And we have a common interest in working together to try to reduce emissions and be leaders at that level. So the answer is that I’ve told China many times publicly, and President Biden has indicated to them, that we’re open to taking the climate back and we hope we can.”

Before the summit, Kerry told reporters that the final decision to resume formal talks rests with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden and Xi are expected to meet at the upcoming G20 summit in Indonesia.

“That’s going to come from one person, and until then we’re in limbo,” Kerry said of Xi.

There are many reasons, as Kerry points out, that the two countries should be in sync on the climate crisis. Not only are they historically the most to blame for climate change, but their actions also have significant influence on the rest of the world, which looks to the United States and China to lead on the issue.

However, now that cooperation is apparently at a standstill, some experts are weighing whether it is necessary; Could competition lead to faster change?

Turbines rotate at the Qushandao wind farm in Zhejiang province, China on November 1.

Going into Egypt, one big thing is different from last year: the United States has passed massive climate legislation.

The Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act contained $370 billion in clean energy and climate funding and included tax credits for electric vehicles and batteries written to compete with China.

But China had a head start in the clean energy race and has spent the past decade making headway in wind and solar power. Last year, China installed 80% of the world’s new offshore wind capacity, dwarfing the rest of the world’s nations, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. Advances are also being made in electric vehicles and buses; about a quarter of all new cars registered in China are electric.

The U.S. has a lot of catching up to do, but “they’re back on track,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

“I think healthy competition between the two countries will benefit everyone,” he said. “This new money will be a very significant global injection into clean energy technology and innovation, and is likely to catalyze even more (development) in China. But in many ways, China currently has a first-mover advantage; there much work to be done in the United States.”

In China, the U.S. climate bill is being seen as a “competitive gesture” and with some skepticism that the U.S. can move as fast as it wants in the transition to clean energy, according to Li Shuo, a Beijing global policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia.

“Part of that sentiment is sour grapes, but I think part of it is based on smart analysis: If you’re a country that manages to grow renewable energy from zero to huge in 10 years, you better know the secret of success. than anyone,” Shuo said.

Chinese officials “are not convinced that the United States will be able to replicate this,” Shuo said. “Only the United States can prove itself and the stakes, our climate future, are high.”

Smoke rises from the chimney of a coal-fired power plant in China's Gansu province in February.  China and the United States have historically been the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

The United States and China, because of the sheer scale of their global warming emissions, money and political clout, have historically been the power players at international climate summits. This year is no different, with all eyes on the two countries and whether they will resume collaboration.

Xie announced at COP27 on Tuesday that his country has developed a national strategy to reduce its methane emissions, fulfilling a promise it made at last year’s summit when it pledged to cooperate with the US.

Speaking at an event in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Xie said China’s methane strategy will focus on three areas: reducing methane from its energy sector, agriculture and waste management areas.

However, within the energy sector, Xie only mentioned reducing oil and gas emissions, and did not mention China’s coal sector, which produces much of the country’s methane emissions in addition to CO2. China produces the most methane emissions from coal mines in the world, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Xie’s announcement is the latest proof that cooperation between the world’s two biggest emitters is important, even more so because of the peer pressure effect it can have on other countries.

“We’ve seen moments where [US-China cooperation] is giving good results; a positive force both in the domestic context of each country, as well as an impetus for international discussions,” said Nate Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland and a former Kerry official. “In this context , the suspension of talks is an obstacle.”

The end of the US-China deal created an information vacuum as lines of communication were closed, which could lead to mistrust, according to Sims Gallagher.

“I’m sure China knows we passed the (Inflation Reduction Act),” Sims Gallagher said. “At a high level it is understood. But at a granular level, it’s much harder to understand what’s happening and why.”

A senior administration official admitted that he believes something has been lost because of the suspended talks, which ended the momentum that arose from the joint statement by the United States and China in Glasgow l ‘last year. This official said it is still an open question whether the cooperation can continue this year.

Ultimately, it is in China’s best interest, and the world’s, to resume talks with the United States, said Joanna Lewis, an associate professor of energy and environment at Georgetown University, because it raises the profile of the China at a key international summit: enabling a country often cast as the climate villain with a positive spin.

“When the Chinese lead negotiator and the US lead negotiator stand before the world together, it calls out China as a leader and puts them on a new level of climate leadership,” Lewis said. “Especially during an international negotiation where you don’t always see them playing a leadership role.”

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