U.S.-China clashes threaten fight against climate change
They have the largest carbon footprints. Also the largest economies. Now, as diplomats meet in Poland for high-stakes climate negotiations, a pitched standoff between the United States and China threatens to slow global action on climate change precisely at a time when the risks of catastrophe are accelerating.
The tensions between Washington and Beijing range from trade to cybersecurity to military rivalry in the Pacific. And while some of those issues have simmered for years, cooperation in the fight against climate change had once been a bright spot, so much so that it propelled the creation of the landmark global agreement in Paris in 2015 to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
But then the Trump administration announced its intention to pull out of the Paris pact altogether, rejecting the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet.
That represented perhaps the most consequential diplomatic reversal of the Trump era.
“The biggest threats to the planet are the lack of U.S. climate leadership at home and the unwillingness of the U.S. to engage with China,” said Joanna Lewis, a China specialist at Georgetown University. “The rest of the world looks to the U.S. and China for leadership, and it has become clear that, as the alliance has waned, global momentum to address climate change has slowed.”
Taken together, the emissions produced by the United States and China account for more than 40 percent of the global total. In both countries, emissions went up this year, according to an analysis issued this week by the Global Carbon Project in which one scientist likened the acceleration of global emissions to “a speeding freight train.”
That fact hovers over Katowice, the Polish city where the United Nations is leading two weeks of talks to figure out how to implement the Paris agreement. Adding to the urgency of that meeting, the promises made so far under the Paris pact are nowhere enough to avert the worst effects of climate change. A U.N. scientific report issued this fall warned that, if emissions continued to rise at the current rate, the planet would warm so fast that it could lead to widespread food shortages, wildfires and floods.
It is hard to imagine a worse time for the world’s two behemoths — the United States, traditionally representing the rich world in climate negotiations, and China, representing the developing countries — to be locked in a cycle of intense distrust at the highest levels.
“The U.S.-China climate honeymoon is definitely over. That much is very clear,” said Li Shuo, a senior policy adviser for Greenpeace Asia, based in Beijing. “The U.S. is asking a lot but there’s nothing that the U.S. can give. That’s the fundamental challenge.”
For China’s part — even though its emissions have grown in the last two years, mainly because of continued coal use — the country is on track to meet its modest, self-imposed Paris target, which is to reach peak emissions by 2030. In fact, it appears on track to do so ahead of schedule, according to independent analysts. It is also ramping up renewable energy sources faster than any country in the world. The emissions intensity of its economy, geared to manufacture goods for the rest of the world, is declining.
At the same time, though, coal plants have not closed down as fast as some had expected. Much more worrying, China is exporting coal technology abroad, with its powerful state-owned companies proposing to build coalfired power plants from Kenya to Pakistan, effectively exporting its carbon footprint.
Now, with additional economic headwinds from Washington, China confronts a new debate: Should it continue to move rapidly from its emissions-intensive industrial economy, or should it simply slow down?
So far, there is no evidence that China is reversing course. Still, the U.S. posture, and the concerns over a continued slowdown of the Chinese economy give ballast to Chinese promoters of heavy industry, some China analysts say, putting President Xi Jinping under considerable pressure.