The U.S Can Steal China's Climate Leadership Crown - Euro Journal - NEWS AGENCY
For decades, China was a leader in international climate negotiations. But that changed at the latest United Nations climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. At the November 2022 summit, known as COP27, China became the target of criticism for failing to do enough to address climate change. The disapproval came not just from other […] At the latest United Nations climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, China was criticized for failing to do enough to address climate change. This shift underscores an inconvenient truth for Beijing, as its climate commitments increasingly look insufficient and its former allies in climate negotiations want Beijing to do more. China has played an essential role in climate talks since the 1990s, but it has become increasingly difficult for China to draw a clear line between itself and the industrialized nations it argues should bear the brunt of costs in responding to climate change, and this has caused it to become a larger target for countries experiencing growing natural disruption. Beijing's leadership loss on climate is Washington’s gain, as it has been criticized for its lack of leadership and for its refusal to rule out pursuing future compensation from the United States.
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For decades, China was a leader in international climate negotiations. But that changed at the latest United Nations climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. At the November 2022 summit, known as COP27, China became the target of criticism for failing to do enough to address climate change. The disapproval came not just from other big greenhouse gas emitters but also from other developing countries: Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and chair of the influential Alliance of Small Island States, called China a “major polluter” that could no longer expect a “free pass” on contributing to climate finance.
This shift underscores an inconvenient truth for Beijing: Given its status as the world’s largest emitter and second-largest economy, China’s climate commitments increasingly look insufficient, and even its former allies in climate negotiations want Beijing to do more. This creates major geopolitical vulnerabilities for China—and opportunities for the United States and its allies. In short, Beijing’s leadership loss on climate is Washington’s gain.
China has played an essential role in climate talks since the 1990s. Beijing took part in the original negotiations that led to the main global climate agreement, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which then-Premier Li Peng signed in 1992. As China became the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the early 2000s, it began to play a more prominent role in international climate policy, underscored by a 2014 U.S.-China joint announcement in which Beijing, for the first time, promised to take steps to reduce its emissions alongside similar steps pledged by Washington. In 2020, when the United States had stepped back from its climate commitments under the Trump administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2060.
Despite this increasingly prominent role, the bedrock of China’s climate policy has remained the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”—the idea that while all countries should do their part to fight climate change, wealthy industrialized nations that contributed the bulk of emissions over time should bear most of the effort and expense. This principle helps hold together the Group of 77, or G-77, a caucus of developing countries at the United Nations. Beijing has long been influential in the G-77—so much so that it is technically called the Group of 77 and China—and has coordinated its role in U.N.-sponsored climate negotiations largely through the coalition.
Yet it has become increasingly difficult for China to draw a clear line between itself and the industrialized nations it argues should bear the brunt of costs in responding to climate change. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, China was able to secure its status as a developing country in the world’s climate regime. But every year since then, China has been the world’s largest emitter. Though China was responsible for about 12 percent of cumulative global emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution to 2017—compared to 25 percent for the United States and 22 percent for the European Union and United Kingdom—China now emits about a third of the world’s greenhouse gasses each year, well ahead of any other economy. Analysis suggests China could surpass the United States’ cumulative emissions around 2050.
The difficulty of Beijing’s balancing act became fully apparent at COP27 when it was effectively abandoned by other developing countries as they fought to secure “loss and damage” compensation for countries heavily affected by climate change. A key sticking point in the negotiations was the United States’ and European Union’s insistence that China be ineligible to receive compensation from the fund. Initially, the G-77, leading negotiations on behalf of the developing world, balked at any effort to exclude China.
Eventually, however, the coalition agreed that the landmark loss and damage fund would focus on the most vulnerable countries rather than China and other rising economies. China, for its part, conceded to the agreement, but refused to rule out pursuing future claims to compensation.
Second, Beijing’s reputation as a difficult partner in managing resources shared between countries that are threatened by climate change, such as fisheries and transboundary rivers, will only worsen. Already, dams built and financed by Chinese firms have attracted growing scrutiny for disrupting the flow of major rivers, such as the Mekong, that are shared with several neighboring countries. As the costs of climate change mount, China is likely to become a larger target for countries experiencing growing disruption to key natural resources, and it may lose out on access to those same resources.
Third, China’s growing isolation in climate talks dulls Beijing’s narrative of steadily expanding global influence. Climate action is arguably the area in which Beijing has been most successful in acquiring soft power, which has helped bolster its overall standing on the world stage. Due to the sheer size of its economy and emissions, China has been treated as an equal by other major powers in climate policy, especially the United States and the European Union, since at least the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, in which China played a decisive role. Since then, Beijing has trumpeted its involvement in climate talks as an example of its global leadership, but that will be harder to do as fewer countries want to take China’s lead.
To be sure, China’s isolation on this issue is not inevitable, and Beijing may well make an ambitious commitment to climate finance akin to its pledge to decarbonize by 2060. But a serious pledge would probably require Beijing to abandon its longstanding insistence that it has no obligation to contribute to adaptation funds due to its limited historical contribution to climate change—an unlikely scenario since China rarely makes abrupt changes in long-held diplomatic positions. Given these constraints, China will likely become increasingly politically vulnerable due to its position on climate action.
First, along with its European and Japanese allies, Washington must fund the new U.N. loss and damage financing mechanism, which will require billions of dollars in new investment to succeed. It must also ensure the fund has robust safeguards that ensure the money actually helps protect the world’s most vulnerable populations from climate impacts, rather than being pocketed or used unwisely by corrupt politicians.
Securing funding from Congress is, of course, a tall order. Last December, even with Democrats controlling both the House of Representatives and Senate, Congress’s end-of-year spending bill came nowhere near fulfilling U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to provide $11.4 billion annually in climate finance by 2024. When asked whether they supported providing loss and damage funds, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle cited a need for climate adaptation investment at home instead.
Yet more ambitious climate adaptation financing abroad is needed to strengthen U.S. leadership and enhance national security. Take Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state where devastating change climate impacts, such as last summer’s mass floods, increase the risk of political instability and extremism. In recent years, Pakistan has received significant investment from Beijing, while its relationship with Washington has been strained. But while China has emphasized its climate investments in Pakistan and its commitment to recovery efforts, Islamabad has opened the door to forward-leaning diplomacy from Washington by calling for massively scaled-up loss and damage funding that Beijing has so far shown no willingness to provide. U.S. efforts to mobilize this funding would draw a strong contrast to China’s behavior and help shore up stability in a country of national security concern to the United States.
A second, and perhaps easier, opportunity for Washington to pursue with its allies and partners is to better equip international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, to contribute to climate finance. Multilateral development banks have steadily increased their lending for climate resilience and adaptation in recent years, but this category still accounts for a minority of their total lending. Climate adaptation must instead become the overriding priority for all such institutions. In her January trip to Africa, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called for these institutions to put transnational issues such as climate change at the center of their work. However, the United States has yet to embrace more ambitious plans such as the Bridgetown Initiative, put forward by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, which aims to prevent developing nations’ debt from spiraling out of control in the wake of climate hazards, increase funding for climate resilience, and create a new mechanism for reconstruction investment after climate disasters.
Third, the United States should prioritize climate action in its own bilateral foreign aid programs. Few, if any, international development goals can be accomplished without averting dangerous climate change impacts. Climate resilience and adaptation must accordingly become the overarching priority for agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as they follow through on Biden’s exhortation for all U.S. federal agencies to become climate agencies.
Washington has more climate solutions to offer other countries than ever before, after last summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and recent investments from the Defense Department, State Department, and USAID in developing climate-resilient strategies. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act includes $30 billion in tax credits to support increased U.S. production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and critical minerals processing. Sharing the technologies and innovations derived from these investments with vulnerable allies, partners, and, importantly, prospective partners, is a win-win approach—for U.S. leadership, competition with China, and in tackling the climate crisis.
China’s growing isolation clearly offers the United States a critical opportunity to help the world adapt to climate change and, in so doing, enhance its leadership role on this fundamental international issue. Now is the time to seize it.