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US/CHINA: Climate cooperation is no gamechanger for bilateral relations

Table of Contents

  • A joint US-China statement on climate change projects a tone of cooperation but contains no new specific policies or emissions reductions targets by either country.
  • Even if Beijing and Washington are willing to set aside other disputes and treat climate change as a standalone issue, the scope for concrete bilateral cooperation is modest.
  • Some US hardliners worry that US climate envoy John Kerry will circumvent the Biden administration's normal policy process to offer concessions to Beijing, but this appears unlikely.



Amid the decline in US-China relations in recent years, some observers have cited climate change as an area where bilateral cooperation remains possible. Following talks in Shanghai on 15-16 between US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, Washington and Beijing released a joint statement pledging to cooperate but offering no new policy specifics.

Beyond the US summit, the joint statement raises two questions. First, what are the possibilities for policy cooperation on climate change? Second, could such cooperation create positive spillovers to other areas of the US-China relationship?

Limited scope for cooperation

On the first question, contrary to received wisdom, the possibilities for cooperation are modest – not necessarily because the two governments are unwilling to cooperate, but rather because the possibilities for cooperation are limited. In the early 2010s, Xi and then-president Barack Obama appeared to leverage one another's climate commitments as part of the Paris Accords to build domestic political support for more ambitious action on climate. Now, however, the political will in both countries to tackle climate change is stronger. Xi has promised that China will achieve net zero emissions by 2060, while US President Joe Biden aims for the US to reach that goal by 2050. For both countries, the willingness of key domestic stakeholders to embrace the painful and expensive reforms necessary to achieve these ambitious goals is the key variable.

In fact, US-China competition could serve to mobilize domestic political support, as both governments strive to outdo the other and establish global leadership in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and related industries. In foreign policy, both countries may use dueling climate-related infrastructure investments in developing countries to advance their broader geopolitical objectives. China has received criticism for financing coal power plants as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, but there are signs that Beijing is already shifting course. Beijing recently canceled a deal to finance a coal plant in Bangladesh, citing environmental concerns.

In the short term, the joint statement says both countries “look forward to” the US-hosted climate summit on 22-23 April, implying – though not directly stating – that Chinese President Xi Jinping will join the summit. Media have also reported that Xi will participate.

The closest thing to new policy in the statement is a pledge that both countries will “develop … their respective long-term strategies aimed at net zero GHG emissions/carbon neutrality” in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) in November. China's 14th Five-Year Plan, which was released in March and covers the 2021-2025 period, disappointed climate advocates by failing to set significant new targets that would establish a clear and realistic path towards meeting Beijing's 2030 and 2060 goals. But China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment is already drafting a national-level Climate Change Special Plan that may contain more ambitious targets. On the US side, Biden may announce a new emissions reduction target for 2030 at this week's summit.

Separate from the Kerry visit, Xi held a phone call on 16 April with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron that discussed climate, among other issues. According to the Chinese readout, Xi told his counterparts that climate should not become a geopolitical bargaining chip or an excuse for imposing trade barriers.

Positive spillovers?

On the second question, spillovers are possible but appear unlikely. Some US hardliners worry that Kerry's high profile as a former secretary of state will enable him to circumvent the Biden administration's more formal policymaking process, which is charting a course for broad-based competition with China, to offer compromises and concessions to Beijing in pursuit of climate cooperation. There were rumors that in addition to Xie, Kerry would also meet with top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the two senior officials with whom Blinken and Sullivan clashed publicly in Alaska. Even more significantly, rumors also suggested a possible meeting with Vice Premier Han Zheng, who is also a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee. Such a meeting would mark the highest-level official bilateral contact since the beginning of the Biden administration. Han's portfolio also includes Hong Kong affairs.

But it is not clear if Kerry actually met Yang, Wang, or Han. Moreover, even a Kerry-Han meeting meet would not necessarily signal a broader warming in bilateral relations. White House messaging around the meeting has been muted, signaling that the administration does not view the Kerry trip as a major diplomatic event. Kerry has called climate a “standalone” issue and pledged that human rights and trade abuses would “never be traded” for climate cooperation. Moreover, even if he wanted to, it is unlikely that Kerry could successfully circumvent Sullivan and Blinken. The upshot is that even if both countries intend to move aggressively on climate and cooperate where possible, such cooperation will not be a game-changer for the broader relationship.

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US/CHINA: Climate cooperation is no gamechanger for bilateral relations

A joint US-China statement on climate change projects a tone of cooperation but contains no new specific policies or emissions reductions targets by either