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Negotiating from Strength: Washington, Beijing and Climate Change

There is growing pressure for the Biden administration to de-escalate tensions with China for the sake of climate cooperation. In a letter published on July 8, climate organizations called on the United States to work on “environmental, human rights, social, and governance standards” with China to avert a new Cold War.

Enticing China to act in support of the Biden administration’s effort to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions will not succeed. China’s significance as the world’s greatest emitter of pollution and Chinese policymakers’ own view of climate change negotiations will render any cooperative strategy ineffective. As our primary strategic rival, China will likely only respond to pressure on climate.

China is the world’s largest greenhouse emitter. In 2019, China polluted more CO2 than the United States, the EU and Japan combined. China’s emissions were also more than three times India’s and four times all of Africa and South America’s combined emissions. These levels of pollution make up about 27 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas.

Fossil fuels remain the backbone of China’s economy. China’s emissions come principally from its coal use, which constitutes about 60 percent of its energy consumption. Meanwhile, China races ahead with constructing new coal plants. In 2020, China added more than three times the rest of the world in new coal power capacity.

This reality clashes with Chinese propagandists’ attempts to tout their solar and wind power technology. Today, these sources only account for about 5 percent of China’s energy usage combined. The Chinese government, however, continues to provide massive government assistance and subsidies into solar and wind power.

American greenhouse emissions, by contrast, have been on a downward trend since 2007. The U.S. energy portfolio is the most diversified it has ever been, with ample oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy. The United States has halved its coal consumption in the past decade, due to surging natural gas supplies. It also has an emerging green energy market based on American innovation.

These differences mean that China emits nearly twice as much greenhouse gas each year as the United States and more than the entire G7 combined. China is the real source of this century’s climate challenge — and Washington should be unambiguous about it. The United States should ignore China’s empty promises about carbon neutrality and think differently about how to incentivize China to do what is right for the whole world.

Climate cooperation with Beijing will not reduce China’s emissions. Policymakers in China have a jaded view of the relationship between climate change and U.S.-China relations. Our recent research found that Chinese strategists see climate change as one part of a broader zero-sum struggle between the United States and China for global dominance. They want to take advantage of any opportunity to establish an edge over the United States, including in climate negotiations. If climate negotiators in Washington give the Chinese government an inch, it will take a mile.

The United States should acknowledge the fact that energy represents a crucial dimension of the U.S.-China competition. The Chinese government will only finally take the significant steps required to reduce its carbon emissions when it knows building more coal plants will incur significant international costs. This is only possible if the United States can change Beijing’s calculus.

Such an approach could take any number of forms. For example, the United States could levy a tax on trade with any Chinese companies involved in coal and prevent those companies from raising funds in American financial markets. The United States could also help developing countries transition to green energy as a response to China’s coal-powered Belt and Road Initiative. These ideas are just the beginning of what the United States can do with its growing advantage over China in energy innovation, production and resiliency.

Washington must reconsider how it understands the challenge of climate change. The United States has already made great strides to reduce its pollution and energy consumption while diversifying its energy portfolio. Meanwhile, China has become by far the world’s worst emitter of carbon dioxide. The Chinese Communist Party does not want good-faith cooperation on climate. The United States should recognize its strengths and embrace its role to lead a coalition to press China to reduce its pollution.