In Part 1 of our international climate diplomacy series, we assessed five actions in President Biden's "climate crisis" Executive Order (EO) that seek to demonstrate international leadership. Multilateral cooperation underpins every action to maximize emissions reductions necessary to meet international climate change commitments.

There is no relationship more central to averting global climate catastrophe than that between the U.S. and China, as these two countries account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.1 Without full engagement of both governments, any multilateral attempts to curb climate change will fail. In this post, we explore the history of U.S.-China cooperation on climate and assess each country's current climate pledges. We examine the Biden administration's posture toward China and pose potential paths for rebuilding the bilateral relationship. Finally, we present important diplomatic considerations if the U.S. is to extend an olive branch to China through climate change.

History of U.S.-China Climate Diplomacy

The U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly contentious in recent years, with disputes intensifying over economic and foreign policy issues. While the trajectory of the relationship is unlikely to change significantly in the short term, there is optimism for re-establishing cooperation in certain areas, especially on climate. President Biden's emphasis on bilateral climate cooperation is unsurprising, as it was a central plank of President Obama's international diplomacy and was pivotal in negotiating and cementing the Paris Agreement. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry established the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group in 2013, which laid the foundation for the 2014 U.S.-China climate deal in which President Obama and President Xi Jinping announced their countries' respective GHG reduction targets. The targets from that deal, notably the first time China agreed to peak its carbon dioxide emissions, also became the basis of each country's first Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) submitted under the 2015 Paris Agreement.2 U.S. and Chinese cooperation was critical to the Paris Agreement's success. At that time, the two countries accounted for over 40 percent of global GHG emissions, so their participation alone meant a major step toward reaching the threshold for the Agreement to take full force and effect (i.e., participation from 55 countries accounting for at least 55 percent of global GHG emissions).

The Trump administration significantly exacerbated tensions with China that began late in the Obama administration over economic and foreign policy issues, including: its acquisition of sensitive U.S. technology, its persecution of the Uyghur population and human rights issues to name a few. The Trump administration's perception that China's commitments under the Paris Agreement were insufficient also contributed directly to its decision to withdraw from that Agreement in 2017.  President Biden has been clear that he believes the United States remains in "extreme competition" with China on a broad range of issues, but his administration nonetheless appears to recognize the importance of expanding diplomatic channels between the world's two most powerful countries, particularly on the climate front.

The Political Landscape and the Biden Administration's Posture

The U.S. and China have both updated and upgraded their climate pledges since the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Biden administration plans to announce the new U.S. NDC by the Leaders' Climate Summit on Earth Day this April, but has already pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China announced at the September 2020 U.N. General Assembly that it will aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

The dual carbon neutrality announcements could catalyze bilateral relations, and despite critical campaign rhetoric, President Biden acknowledges that U.S.-China cooperation is essential. But the question remains: can the Biden administration tackle climate change as an isolated area of bilateral cooperation, or will it strive to rebuild the totality of the U.S.-China relationship?

Rhetoric during the first week of the Biden administration indicated a preference for the former. At the "Climate Day" press conferences, John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, called China climate cooperation a "critical standalone issue" and emphasized that human rights and trade issues "will never be traded" for climate change cooperation. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjian quickly countered that "no one should imagine they could ask China to understand and support them in bilateral and global affairs when they blatantly interfere in China's domestic affairs and undermine China's interests."

Still, rhetoric on both sides already appears to be softening on climate issues. In what many view as a goodwill gesture by Chinese leadership, Xie Zhenhua was named China's special climate envoy-John Kerry's counterpart-on February 3. Xie led China's global climate negotiations from 2007-2018, including for the Paris Agreement in 2015. Xie and Kerry have a long history and close relationship, so Xie's appointment could reopen diplomatic channels and even accelerate bilateral climate negotiations. Indeed, Kerry reacted to the appointment by calling Xie a "leader" and "capable advocate" for China on the issue of climate change.

As a next step in improving cooperation on climate, the Biden administration is expected to work toward a unified front with China at the next U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change convention of parties (COP-26) this November. China's September 2020 announcement that it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 was lauded by the international community and widely viewed as China stepping into the light as a global leader on climate change. Biden's team will likely seize on that sentiment and push for some big wins at COP-26, including finally setting the rules for Article 6, which would provide for the use of market and non-market measures to achieve climate mitigation. 

Although improved climate cooperation between the U.S. and China is likely, the Biden administration will need to be cautious to avoid perceptions that it is weakening its stance on core trade and national security issues in exchange for Chinese commitments on climate. Indeed, certain China watchers have suggested China has been posturing, attempting to take advantage of the perception that the Biden administration will sell out other policies to get a climate deal, and leveraging perception to get the administration to do just that. But odds are that Biden will maintain continuity from his predecessor on most diplomatic issues-pushing back forcefully on human rights violations, unfair trade practices, Hong Kong autonomy and the South China Sea-and, after a period of evaluation, perhaps even enhancing certain legacy policies.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: Seeking Cooperation While Remaining Forceful

Despite hopes for successes born from a renewed U.S.-China relationship on climate, tensions likely will resurface in the details. Should international "carbon clubs" begin to form, the U.S. may seek to place a domestic price on carbon along with corresponding border carbon adjustments (BCAs). BCAs would support low-carbon intensity exports from the U.S. and would impose tariffs on high-carbon intensity imports, which could be particularly relevant to China by helping prevent an unfair trade advantage if China fails to uphold an effective national emissions trading scheme. The U.S. could also leverage Section 232 to impose tariffs on climate intensive imports, based on the administration's already-expressed view that climate change is a national security threat. To date, John Kerry has declined to embrace the big stick approach. In a February 4 interview, Kerry said "it's much too early to be advocating on one particular international policy or another," refusing to endorse a multilateral BCA scheme with the European Union and Canada to pressure China to cut emissions.

Other areas of sensitivity also loom for any future U.S.-China climate cooperation. Historically, the U.S. and China have engaged in significant climate technology sharing. But many U.S. politicians remain wary of any technology transfer with China, particularly any that provides China with an economic or national security advantage. For example, expanding carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) was a major goal of the Obama-era U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center. The largest facility for carbon capture is located in the U.S., but the endeavor is more economically viable in China.3 U.S.-China cooperation could help deploy U.S. CCUS technology in China via a joint venture, but it is questionable whether there would be any U.S. political support for such a venture. The technological path forward may be restricted to knowledge sharing and best practices.

Implications & Next Steps

The U.S. and China-and indeed the world-stand much to gain from a renewed U.S.-China relationship. But improved diplomatic relations on climate do not necessarily mean improved relations overall or the elimination of other tensions significantly straining the relationship. Even on climate, President Biden may use international fora to work with allies to advance U.S. interests while locking China into climate commitments. For example, Biden could target the environmental sustainability of projects financed through China's Belt and Road Initiative. China is the biggest financer of coal-fired power plants in the developing world, which threatens not only global emissions reduction objectives but also poses serious corruption issues. Other members of the G-7, G-20 or the UNFCCC could be open to pushing for standards on international financing projects that require Belt and Road projects to improve their environmental sustainability, thereby advancing U.S. climate and broader national security objectives at the same time.


1 In 2019, China accounted for 27 percent of global GHG emissions and the U.S. accounted for 13 percent.'s%20Response%20to%20Climate%20Change%20-%20David%20Sandalow%20-%20July%202020.pdf

2 The 2015 U.S. NDC was to cut net emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The 2015 China NDC had four main climate change goals: (1) achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030, aiming to achieve the peak early; (2) lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels by 2030; (3) increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy to around 20 percent by 2030; and (4) increase forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2030.

3 The Petra Nova carbon capture project, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, commenced operation in 2017. The facility suspended operations in May 2020 due to the state of oil markets and is currently in reserve shutdown status.

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