How sour relations with China could derail Biden on climate

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at Andrews Air Force Base in this 2015 file photo. Photo credit: Huang Jingwen Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

Former Vice President Joe Biden has claimed credit for paving the way to the Paris Agreement by convincing China to enter into an earlier landmark climate deal with the United States, in 2014.

But the relationship between the two global powers — and top carbon emitters — has soured so much in recent years that it’s doubtful a similar agreement could be reconstructed if Biden, a Democrat, is elected president.

For one thing, the public might not stand for it after a campaign season in which Biden and President Trump are facing off over who can be the toughest on China.

“American politics vis-à-vis China has changed a lot, and it appears that public sentiment has shifted to become more anti-China during these last few years,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environment with the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “And so I think it has constrained the political space for Biden, if he were to be elected, to pursue cooperation.”

Still, experts like Sims Gallagher, who worked on the U.S.-China climate deal during a stint in the Obama White House, say Biden’s climate ambitions demand engagement with China.

That’s true even if the relationship looks substantially different than the day six years ago when President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised the world by jointly releasing their climate pledges.

That announcement brushed aside years of acrimony between developed and developing countries on climate and cleared the path for success in Paris the following year.

Biden has claimed it as his own accomplishment, stating in Democratic primary debates and elsewhere that it was he who brought the Chinese to the negotiating table (Climatewire, Feb. 28).

But his rhetoric has changed in recent years as U.S.-China relations have deteriorated. Some of that is because of Trump, who has spent his years in office stoking anti-Chinese sentiment on trade and the pandemic — a virus he’s taken to calling “the China virus” or “kung flu.”

But it also reflects China’s increasingly aggressive stance in the world and its rejection of human rights and economic liberalism at home.

Biden’s dimming view of China — and his months spent parrying Trump’s charges that he’s soft on the communist nation — has permeated his policy platform, including on climate.

The climate plan he debuted in July didn’t call for 2014-style climate outreach to China. Instead, it painted the Asian superpower as an adversary bent on cornering the global market on everything from renewable energy to electric vehicles, aided and abetted by Trump’s climate retreat.

“He has held back American workers from leading the world on clean energy, giving China and other countries a free pass to outcompete us in key technologies and the jobs that come with them,” the plan states, referring to Trump.

In a June op-ed in Foreign Affairs, Biden said his climate agenda would include “insisting that China — the world’s largest emitter of carbon — stop subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing pollution to other countries by financing billions of dollars’ worth of dirty fossil fuel energy projects through its Belt and Road Initiative.”

The massive global infrastructure program is currently supporting 100 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

‘Completely toxic relationship’

Still, experts hope that if Biden wins this November, he’ll find a way to deal with China on climate.

The country is now responsible for more than 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Any serious effort to stop adding emissions to the atmosphere by 2050 must include China.

Biden will find it hard to sell the U.S. public and Congress on an ambitious climate agenda at home without demonstrating that China is taking meaningful steps, said Joanna Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University who tracks Chinese climate policy.

“Engaging with China and allowing people in the U.S. to understand what they’re doing is good for U.S. climate policy because no one wants to act alone on this,” she said.

Republicans who oppose strong U.S. climate action have long argued that China’s commitment in Paris to peak emissions by 2030 represents business as usual. And Trump and his Cabinet routinely point to overall U.S. emissions cuts linked to the natural gas boom of the last 15 years as evidence of their climate leadership.

Now, China is expected to peak its emissions by 2025 or 2026 — years earlier than it promised.

After the China-E.U. summit held virtually this week, Chinese foreign ministry Information Department Deputy Director Wang Wenbin said the country is looking at ways to build on its Paris commitments.

“We are now considering and studying a midcentury long-term vision for climate change, including such issues as the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions and carbon neutrality,” he said.

Experts say China’s next five-year plan, due for release in the coming months, will shed light on what its next Paris target is likely to be.

Meanwhile, the United States will almost certainly underperform its own Paris commitment to cut emissions between 26% and 28% by 2025.

That reality could diminish U.S. leverage in trying to persuade China to tighten its 2030 pledge, experts say. And China has earned some goodwill in recent years for being the superpower that stayed in Paris when the United States moved to leave — a process that will be complete the day after the November election.

“I actually think the world owes China a great debt of gratitude for having stayed the course in the Paris Agreement,” said Thom Woodroofe, senior adviser on multilateral affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat.

“Let’s not be under any false pretenses that if the Trump administration had signaled its desire to walk away from the agreement, as it has, and then China followed suit, we would be in a fundamentally different place right now irrespective of what a President Biden has committed to do.”

Woodroofe said he sees expanded climate cooperation under a Biden presidency, but not a return to the era of “bilateral summits that are full of handshakes and smiles.”

Instead, he sees the revival of cooperative initiatives that were jettisoned under Trump as efforts that would be less likely to draw headlines but could nonetheless deliver progress.

China and fossil fuels

The expanded cooperation might also provide a bright spot in U.S.-China relations, which will remain fraught even if Trump exits the White House.

“If you don’t have that, you risk just having the status quo, which is an accelerated slide toward a completely toxic relationship across the board — which is a strategic threat, an economic risk, and negative for global commons issues like climate,” said Woodroofe.

Lewis of Georgetown University said one way of engaging China on climate change would be through its investment in Belt and Road countries.

“We’re essentially standing by while China is helping to build more fossil fuel capacity in developing countries,” she noted. “We could reach out to the third countries to help provide alternatives to Chinese investment and also leverage China’s investment toward cleaner sources of energy.”

Biden has shown a willingness to adopt ideas from the platforms of his Democratic primary rivals, including on climate change. Billionaire Tom Steyer proposed during his campaign to push the Group of 20 nations to stop funding fossil fuels. China is a member.

And Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., proposed that the United States launch a major infrastructure investment project of its own to counteract the Belt and Road Initiative, with a focus on clean energy.

The Trump presidency has also been marked by a loosening of ties with traditional U.S. allies, including in Europe. But Biden, if elected, would look to mend these bridges during his first days in office — including by demonstrating renewed U.S. commitment on climate.

Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States could work with European and other allies to engage China multilaterally.

“We have to work with the Chinese, but how much we would be able to accomplish in the strictly bilateral manner that President Obama and President Xi Jinping could is really up for debate,” she said. “And I’m not as optimistic as I could be.”

The European Union has been a global leader on green finance, Nakano noted. The United States could forge a coalition with it and other allies, she said, to exert “positive pressure” on China.