Solving the Climate Crisis Hinges on the U.S. and China Cooperating

Solving the Climate Crisis Hinges on the U.S. and China Cooperating
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks during a press conference on April 18, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea after two days of climate talks in Shanghai, China. (Photo: U.S. Embassy Seoul, Getty Images)

The U.S. and China are the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas polluters, together constituting some 40% of the world’s carbon emissions. On Sunday, leaders from the two countries announced that they’re willing to work together to enact urgent climate policy.

In a joint statement, U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry and China’s chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua said they’d reached the agreement during a two-day meeting in Shanghai last week. Continued cooperation will be key to address the climate crisis going forward if the world is to have a fair and equitable shot at reducing carbon emissions at the scale needed.

President Joe Biden’s virtual Earth Day summit kicked off on Thursday, offering yet another opportunity for the two countries to collaborate. Biden announced a more ambitious pledge to the Paris Agreement to reduce U.S. emissions 50% to 52% by 2030, and China is expected to make an announcement about its intent as well (as are many of the other countries in attendance). The agreement was seen as hinging on cooperation between the two nations when it was negotiated in 2015.

Happily, Sunday’s announcement adopts a markedly different tone from the Biden administration’s recently released infrastructure plan, which is full of rhetoric about the need to “out-compete China” rather than cooperate with the nation. (Chinese leaders, meanwhile, have been more open to collaboration, though they have retaliated when the U.S. has escalated tensions.)

That cooperative approach is preferable for a number of reasons. The climate crisis is the gravest existential threat facing humanity, and taking it on will require major shifts from both powerful nations. Those shifts will be easier to make if they work together since both have different resources at their disposal.

“The U.S. and China both have major strengths in dealing with the climate crisis, which could be much better combined and coordinated in order to reduce global [carbon] emissions as fast as necessary,” Ashik Siddique, a research analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Priorities Project, wrote in an email.

China has the biggest industrial capacity in the world. Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China has increased its global share of solar photovoltaic production, leaping from less than 1% to more than 60% of the world’s solar panels. China is now the world’s largest producer of electric cars. It makes over one-third of global wind turbines. And it houses over two-thirds of the world’s production capacity for lithium ion batteries. Meanwhile, Siddique noted the U.S. “has advanced research and development and access to massive financial capital,” both of which would help with meeting the moment when it comes to deploying those technologies.

As the two largest polluters and two largest economies, both China and the U.S. also have the responsibility to help countries with fewer resources — especially in the southern hemisphere — with their clean energy transitions. Rather than competing to create and hock clean energy wares to the developing world, the nations banding together could help ensure that every country has access to cheap renewable energy.

Of course, each country could simply choose to go it alone, developing and rolling out clean technologies to replace fossil fuel infrastructure. But this competitive approach would be less efficient. Given the short timeline to transition to renewables to avert even more catastrophic climate change, inefficiency is a death sentence for millions around the world.

“Right now, the U.S. and China are stuck in a mindset of nationalistic competition over who is going to dominate cutting-edge clean energy technologies, and that encourages both countries to hoard these technologies,” Tobita Chow, the director of the Justice Is Global project for the progressive organisation People’s Action, who also co-wrote a comprehensive outline on what U.S. cooperation with China should look like, said in a Twitter direct message. “In order to provide greater access to these technologies throughout the Global South, both countries would need to agree to cooperate rather than compete with each other.”

On this front, the joint statement on the Shanghai meeting was a step in the right direction. It included a pledge to “take appropriate actions to maximise international investment and finance in support of the transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy to green, low-carbon and renewable energy in developing countries.” Chow found that promise “encouraging,” noting that to meet it, the nations could increase funding for the Green Climate Fund, the United Nations’ grant-making body that provides resources for international climate action.

China is the largest current contributor to the climate crisis and the U.S. is the largest historical emitter. But now, both nations have a chance to lead the charge for a more just, greener future. After all, a Cold War is no way to take on global warming.