By Daniel Mikesell 大牛
NANJING, CHINA — 2021 is a pivotal year for global action on climate change. China’s emissions trading system is beginning to take shape, and the Biden administration is implementing a whole-of-government approach to tackle climate change. As the world’s largest CO2 emitters, China and the U.S. have unique roles in the international community’s shift toward sustainable development. The imperative to confront climate change is obvious, but how can these superpowers cooperate in the context of increased competition?
中国，南京 — 对国际社会来说，2021年是应对气候变化的关键之年。在中国，排污权交易制度开始逐渐成型；在美国，拜登政府在执行一种“整体政府”式的措施来应对气候变化。作为世界第一和第二大碳排放国，中国和美国在国际社会转向可持续发展的过程中扮演着特殊的角色。很显然，这两个超级大国必须直面气候变化，但在竞争不断加剧的环境中，它们该如何开展合作？
The first challenge for the U.S. is calibrating China’s development status. A land of contradictions, China is difficult to caricaturize. Rural-urban inequality is high, but the middle class is growing at unprecedented rates. The economy is huge, but average productivity across sectors is low. Chinese people apply for the most international patents, but creativity is stifled by oppressive political and social environments.
Likewise, China is in a strange position vis-à-vis sustainable development. China continues to expand its fleet of coal-fired power plants but has also engendered huge technological leaps in solar power. China pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, but for now it has the world’s largest annual carbon emissions. Beijing has long advocated “common but different responsibilities” – the notion that all countries are not equally responsible for climate change, and that developed countries must bear a greater burden in international efforts against climate change. Now that China has eradicated extreme poverty and is officially an upper-middle income country, the view that it can blindly pursue economic growth without concern for the environment is increasingly unconvincing.
Americans should recognize China’s contradictions and adjust their expectations accordingly. When criticizing China’s high coal use, we should acknowledge that the coal industry is a pillar of China’s employment and energy security. Before demanding a complete shift away from fossil fuels, we should accept that natural gas is playing an important role in cleaning up China’s air. When criticizing China’s carbon emissions, we should remember that our per-capita carbon emissions are more than twice as high as our Chinese counterparts. China’s environmental and economic challenges will be solved not by American idealism but rather by contending with complex realities on their own terms.
Fossil fuels dominate China’s energy mix. Photo credit: International Energy Agency
Foreign assessments of China’s environmental record tend to be simplistic. Foreign environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace that operate within China and toe the party line have been written off by critics as “useful idiots.” Western journalists often wrap scientific and ideological criticisms into one, speculating on the relationship between authoritarianism and environmental protection. Even well-intentioned outsiders may struggle to distinguish between Beijing’s rhetorical bluster and its concrete goals.
Lambasting China’s climate record is not enough. The U.S. must tackle its own climate challenges in order to gain the credibility necessary to hold major polluters accountable and craft international consensus on climate change. In this regard, the 45th U.S. President caused potentially irreparable damage by undermining domestic environmental standards and withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. The Biden administration has reversed course, but climate issues are split down partisan lines, so there is a risk that the 47th President will scorn climate science. The long-term question is whether the federal government attaches importance to climate change regardless which party occupies Congress and the White House.
The tradition of federalism is another potential barrier to nationwide efforts to combat climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t require city councils nationwide to adopt stricter recycling practices; the Department of Energy can’t force every American to drive an electric car. Nevertheless, the Biden administration – as well as Republicans who are courageous enough to buck their party’s trend – must send repeated signals to the world that the U.S. is committed to sustainability. Powerful business interests must be overcome, and leaders must articulate a vision of sustainability that appeals to Americans across the political divide.
The strategic competition between the U.S. and China does not preclude joint action on climate change. On the contrary, gaining strategic leverage and addressing climate change go hand-in-hand. After taking bold action on the domestic front and gradually increasing its credibility, the U.S. can marshal like-minded countries to pressure China to reduce its carbon footprint. Conversely, if the U.S. vacillates between democratic multilateralism and demagogic insularity, China will have more space to assert its position – and it already has.
There is genuine cause for hope regarding superpower cooperation on climate. For over a decade, the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center has engaged in R&D in areas such as energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction. China’s appointment of Xie Zhenhua as Special Envoy for Climate Change is a positive sign, given his prior working relationship with John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. These types of high-level avenues for communication must be maintained and built upon so that neither nation forgets that climate change, not each other, is the gravest threat of this century.
Both China and the U.S. would be more suited for global leadership if they can channel their ambitions into cooperation on climate. As climate change worsens, only those nations dedicated to sustainable development will be worthy of the mantle of global leadership. Summoned to action against an existential threat, Chinese and American leaders across politics, business, media and academia must answer the call together.
Daniel Mikesell is reporting from Bologna, Italy.