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US-China Tensions Hinder Effective Climate Talks and Cooperation

by Olivia Lai Americas Asia Sep 6th 20213 mins
US-China Tensions Hinder Effective Climate Talks and Cooperation

Worsening political tensions between the US and China have made climate talks difficult and affecting the outlook for bilateral climate cooperation between the two countries in combating global warming. The environmental crisis should not be a partisan or ideological issue, yet China is making it so. 

Deteriorating US-China relations could undermine bilateral cooperation on mitigating climate change, according to US climate envoy John Kerry. The statement follows China’s announcement that “it will follow its own climate map” during negotiations between Chinese leaders and Kerry in Tianjin on September 1. 

Ahead of the critical UN climate change summit in Glasgow in November, Kerry presented a list of proposals to China to accelerate its climate actions in negotiations between the two countries. However, during talks held over video, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stood his ground and said the country will stick to their own plan rather than bowing to US pressure. 

The US and China are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. Their climate actions and bilateral cooperation are instrumental in meeting the goals in the Paris Agreement, which is to cap global warming to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. However, political tensions between the two superpowers have worsened over the last decade over issues including economic trade, security and human rights – all of which have arguably exacerbated by the Trump Administration. 

Former Secretary of State Kerry was tasked to push Beijing to be more ambitious in their plans to mitigate global warming, which includes convincing the country to abandon coal as a power source and to accelerate plans for carbon peaking – China has targeted to peak in 2030 – and carbon neutral, which is set for 2060. Kerry also warned that if China goes ahead with its current plan to bring another 200 gigawatts of coal power online, it would “undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees.”

Yet Chinese officials have rebuffed all Kerry’s proposals during the virtual meeting and claim bilateral cooperation on climate change cannot be separated from its broader relationship; ties between the two countries must be improved before other cooperations can be made. 

You might also like: Is Climate Change Reshaping The Future of International Diplomacy?

Following a summer full of extreme weather events which both China and the US have been hit hard by, where more than 300 residents lost their lives during the devastating floods in the Chinese province of Henan and the US Northeast are still battling against the remnants of Hurricane Ida, it’s undeniable that climate change should not be a partisan or ideological issue, a point which Kerry vehemently stresses.

However this all fell on deaf ears. Instead, Wang brought up issues surrounding US trade sanctions while complaining that overall climate discussions have somehow pushed from keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2 degrees, as originally agreed in the Paris Accord, effectively stalling any ongoing climate cooperation.

“If you have three major leaders publicly telling President Biden’s climate envoy that this is affecting outlook, it affects the outlook,” said Kerry during a media briefing

While there’s still another month to go before COP26, a crucial climate change conference for signatory countries of the Paris Agreement to pledge more ambitious climate action, the outlook for either countries to improve relations is bleak at the moment. 

It’s also worth noting that while the US has pledged an ambitious goal of slashing emissions by half by 2030, the country has yet to make any major progress as it requires Congress to pass a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation containing Biden’s climate agenda. This includes a massive investment in clean energy tax credits as well as a new programme to push the country’s electricity to 100% renewable by 2035.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons


About the Author

Olivia Lai

Olivia is a journalist and editor based in Hong Kong with previous experience covering politics, art and culture. She is passionate about wildlife and ocean conservation, with a keen interest in climate diplomacy. She’s also a graduate of University of Edinburgh in International Relations with a Master’s degree from The University of Hong Kong in Journalism. Olivia was the former Managing Editor at Earth.Org.

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