Is US–China cooperation on climate possible?

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The United States and China had a rare together moment at the Glasgow COP26 Summit in November 2021, announcing that they were committed to cooperating with each other on climate action. But should we trust the leadership of either one?

Legislative ping pong and deep pockets

Biden’s personal commitment to climate action is clear, however he has to navigate his policy aspirations through a US political system which grows more divided by the day. America is responsible for 20 percent of the world’s fossil fuel production. This translates into a lot of money and a lot of influence. Will Biden really tackle the world’s biggest banking financiers to fossil fuel – JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America – when these same banks were in the top five of commercial bank donors in the 2019–2020 US election cycle, each donating about 65 percent of their money to the Democrats?

Biden’s support for technologies of carbon capture is more about the politics of coal-mining states like Pennsylvania than it is good climate policy. Despite decades of investment these technologies are simply not available on a large commercial scale. We need action on climate change now, not decades from now.

The fracking of oil and gas in the United States has generated its own political difficulties for Biden. The new business has delivered a manufacturing renaissance to parts of country, including bringing wealth to historically poor rural areas in the state of Texas. US manufacturers like Dow have built more ethane cracker plants upon which the production of plastics relies. The political support for a quick reduction in fossil fuel investment is simply not there in many parts of the United States.

Biden will no doubt resort to presidential executive power to tackle climate change, but what can be done using this power can be easily undone. Obama, using the powers of the presidency, accelerated US commitments to addressing climate change, something not hard to do given that his predecessor was Texan George Bush. His successor, Donald Trump, quickly began to unwind Obama’s Clean Power Plan and took the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Biden has taken the US back into the Paris agreement, but this game of presidential ping pong leaves the question, what will Biden’s successor do?

The problem of climate change is itself nested in a much deeper geo-energy trilemma facing the United States. Energy security, competitiveness (both economic and military) and climate change form a trilemma in which US dependence on fossil fuel for energy security, as well as military competitiveness, make it difficult to take swift action on climate mitigation. Tanks and jets do not yet run on renewable energy. Priority access to US gas is a carrot the United States dangles in its free trade deals with other countries. Fossil fuel seeps into US power in many ways.

Technocratic ambition and environmental Catch-22

A similar argument can be made against Chinese leadership on swift climate action. China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2, its energy security depends heavily on coal and in 2019 it accounted for two-thirds of the growth in global oil consumption, to name just three constraining factors.

But perhaps the fossil fuel industry should not overestimate China’s commitment to keeping investment alive in the coming decades. The reason lies in the country’s domestic interests and especially the desire of the Chinese Communist Party to maintain its grip on power.

China is more at risk from the effects of climate change than many other nations. Glaciers are crucial for freshwater supply, and the glaciers of the Hindu Kush and Himalayas are warming faster than those in other parts of the world. If climate change turns the mountains of water from the Hindu Kush into trickles that no longer fill major rivers like the Yangtze, Chinese Communist party officials can all begin looking for another job.

There is some evidence of China making genuine efforts to tackle the climate crisis. For at least two decades China has been running city-scale experiments with technology systems aimed at delivering a more renewable and sustainable future. Whether it is eco-cities, smart cities, forest cities, sponge cities, or hydrogen cities, the aim is always the same – to pilot a technology, gain engineering experience from the pilot and assess the feasibility of rolling it out across China.

China’s plans to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and move to carbon neutrality by 2060 face all kinds of uncertainties. The Communist party has promised its people ‘moderate prosperity.’ If rapid reductions in fossil fuel lead to power shortages for ordinary people and manufacturers, it will be economically and politically costly for the Party. Moreover, China, as the case of Huawei and 5G demonstrates, cannot count on export markets in the West remaining open to its large companies.

What it comes down to is this. A succession of US presidents will have to navigate climate action through a domestic setting of social polarisation and special interest groups whose wealth depends on fossil fuel. A succession of environmental crises in China will be needed to ensure that Communist party leaders intensify the start they have made on entering a low-carbon world. We will know the true significance of the US-China joint declaration at Glasgow by the end of the decade.


Peter Drahos is Professor of Law and Governance at the European University Institute. His latest book is Survival Governance: Energy and Climate in the Chinese Century, Oxford University Press, 2021.