How Worsening Relations Between the US and China Impact Global Climate Change

Many believe that any real progress to be made against reducing the impact of global climate change hinges on the moves made to reduce carbon emissions by two of the world’s remaining superpowers – China and the US. But, with tensions at an all-time high between the two nations, it may be near impossible for the two countries to cooperate in any meaningful climate accords.

According to the Associated Press, China and the US are the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, respectively, pumping out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that are warming the planet’s atmosphere. The two countries have both pledged to burn less climate-wrecking coal, oil, and gas. But tensions between them threaten their ultimate success.

New details of how quickly China plans to reduce carbon emissions will be revealed later this month when Beijing releases its next Five-Year Plan. And in April, President Joe Biden is expected to announce the United States’ own new targets for cutting fossil fuel emissions.

The US and China both have appointed veteran envoys as their global climate negotiators, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua. But while the two senior statesmen worked well together in laying the groundwork for the 2015 Paris climate accord, they now face new challenges and mounting tensions between the two countries.

Any possible agreements between the US and China on climate policy are threatened to be rocked by the way the US has characterized Beijing’s attitudes toward Hong Kong and Taiwan as “menacing.” The US also continues to call out Beijing for human rights violations, unfair trade practices and accuses China of various degrees of espionage perpetrated against the US.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials are upset about restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on trade, technology, Chinese media, and students in the US, and the State Department’s declaration this year that atrocities against China’s Muslim minorities are a “genocide.”

Kerry recently told reporters, “Those issues” with China “will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen.” But Kerry also called the climate “a standalone issue” with China, drawing criticism from China and from some human-rights advocates in the US.

The big question for climate watchers is, can climate talks between the two countries survive their other geopolitical battles?

“That’s, I think, the huge question,” said John Podesta, who oversaw the Obama administration’s climate efforts and is close to the Biden administration.

“Can you create a lane where you get cooperation on climate” while more contentious issues are dealt with separately? Podesta asked. “Or do they wind up interfering?”

Biden has pledged that the US will switch to an emissions-free power sector within 14 years and have an entirely emissions-free economy by 2050. Kerry is also pushing other nations – including China – to commit to carbon neutrality by then.

But to make that happen, climate negotiators say the key has to be making it worth China’s while — financially and in terms of its international standing — to slow down its building and funding of new coal plants and speed up spending on clean energy.

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