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Is being tough on China the best way forward in addressing climate change?

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Today marks a week since President Biden was inaugurated. It has been a week of executive orders - the most simple and effective mode of Presidential action. Amongst these executive orders is a ban on fossil fuel activity on federal land, and a plan to replace government vehicles with electric ones. This all forms part of Biden’s broader plan to address the ‘existential threat’ that is climate change. The plan is bold in the context of what has hitherto been put forward by US Presidents.

But the Biden administration is already falling into patterns of problematic rhetoric. John Kerry, Biden’s Envoy for Climate, just two days after rejoining the Climate Paris Accords, called upon China to do more. Kerry said that China’s goals were insufficient and allowed too long a timeline for change in contrast to other states’ commitments. Kerry’s comments are a worrying harbinger of Biden’s climate diplomacy. Biden, like many Presidents before him, seems to be bound up in a fallacy of global leadership.

The past few years of climate diplomacy between China and the US have been fraught with competing claims over each other’s environmental impact. They both accuse each other of downplaying their respective impact in various areas of climate. The historical record, as collated by the UN, illuminates the crux of the issue: a conflict between current and past contribution to climate change. China’s annual emissions today are around double that of the US. The US benefited from centuries of unlimited emissions to support its economic development. In the period 1750-2018, China contributed around 210bn tonnes of CO2, whereas the US produced roughly 405bn. China’s development timeline lags behind the US, its emissions increasing whilst US emissions have slowly declined since the turn of the millenia.

But the Chinese government has increasingly seen climate as a top priority, investing unprecedented amounts into intervening in the trajectory of climate change. In many ways, China’s emphasis on climate is far more impressive given this historical comparison. China is, in fact, the world leader in clean energy investment. Its National Energy Administration committed about $360bn to energy transformation in the 13th Five Year Plan, investing $45bn as early as 2013. China’s investment in clean energy per year makes up close to half of global investment. In 2019, US investment reached its peak of $55bn despite its climate-sceptical (or rather, cynical) President. But China outdid the US by about $30bn, despite a roughly 8% fall in investment.

All this is not to minimise the extent of the problem they are facing, nor the level of emissions they still contribute per year. It is needless to say that China’s population is about four times the size of the US. But it does suggest that the US is falling into a troubling historical paradigm. Critiquing the expansiveness of China’s goals is less embarrassing given Biden’s proposed commitments but it is questionable whether this is the most prudent strategy for the administration.

The US risks telling and not showing. China’s government doesn’t need to be told of the ecological importance, let alone the economic benefits, of effective climate policy. China stands to benefit enormously from its investments in clean energy. Renewables are among the fastest growing energy sources, largely driven by China’s investment. Paradoxically, China is the both largest consumer of coal, and the largest producer of wind and solar energy. Most of the largest renewable energy deals are being made by China. If the US is unable to match China’s pace of change, it will miss out on a huge opportunity in the energy sector and perhaps will be faced with a tough hand when China dominates the economy of information that emerges with the transition.

Where is China directing this infrastructural investment? Into growing, developing states. As early as 2008, China announced its commitment to investing heavily in over 100 clean energy projects across African countries. China is exporting its clean energy transformation, winning both global influence and expanding its economic power. Between 2007-16, the Chinese Development Bank (CDB) and Chinese Export-Import Bank (EXIM) pumped $196.7 bn energy sectors abroad. The areas in which China is investing, particularly in Sub-Saharan African countries, are on the edge of experiencing huge population growth, and with it, huge markets for foreign imports. As the biggest external investor in many of these regions, China stands to benefit economically and geopolitically.

All this happens whilst the US appears increasingly hypocritical. The US has emitted more than any country to date, yet is critiquing China having reaped all the economic benefits that this has brought. Biden’s plan is ambitious by any metric, but his administration faces the problem of lagging behind its own rhetoric. Installing a climate-Kissinger like John Kerry echoes of a historical paradigm of hypocritical and paternalistic proselytising on the international stage. In other words, climate is one of many issues where the US doesn’t yet hold any real normative standing. The US, not China has moralised the issue of climate change, yet China stands far ahead in actual global leadership.

So how can the gap between rhetoric and actual leadership be bridged? The US faces far more obstructions politically than China does in addressing climate change and expanding its global influence. The US faces a fragmented Congress which, despite Democrats’ hold on both houses, will undoubtedly water down most of Biden’s proposals. Its overall emissions impact is dominated by several key companies who all maintain a tight grip over politics. Biden faces an impossible situation at home but - with a career punctuated by success in Congressional negotiation - some level of success can be reasonably expected. By contrast, an autocratic regime which has inherent risks of abuse - tragically brought home by its treatment of Uighur Muslims - by consequence also has unprecedented domestic flexibility on climate. These paradoxes are the very crux of the issue the US faces in dealing with China.

US influence abroad has waned in recent years but is fixable. Potential solutions to compete with China lie in offering low interest rates on loans to clean energy projects abroad, and helping develop competitive clean energy markets. Investing heavily in this infrastructure has historically been successful in reducing clean energy costs: according to McKinsey, investment in Vietnam reduced the cost of solar energy by 75% over five years. The benefits of this aren’t just ecological but geopolitical - the US will regain influence whilst enhancing regional political stability previously encumbered by nonrenewable energy politics. If the US is to have a stronger hand in negotiations with China elsewhere, these strategies are essential. But the US has a long way to go in catching up.

Even still, US hypocrisy is not its biggest problem. The bigger issue is that Biden seems entangled in the fallacious idea that it can successfully lead on the global stage in fixing problems like climate change. US power is waning as China’s rises. China’s emissions are far greater than those of the US. The US cannot alter the trajectory of climate change purely of its own accord. Hypocrisy doesn’t help. Adam Tooze, author of ‘Crashed’, recently pointed out that this fallacy is endemic in the most ambitious projects like the ‘Green New Deal’, calling upon 1960s ‘moonshot’ language - a time where the US did in fact hold huge global power.

Does the US have to be tough on China with regards to climate? The issue is at the nexus of economic, moral and geopolitical competition. The US needs to focus on its efforts at home and its investments abroad for the benefit of the national economy. All this paints a depressing picture of how Biden’s scope for influence, against the ever-lessening time the planet has left to address climate change. What is needed is sophisticated climate diplomacy that avoids hypocrisy and jingoistic finger pointing at who needs to do more.