No Progress Without Buy-In From The World’s Top Polluters US And China

No Progress Without Buy-In From The World’s Top Polluters US And China

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference ended with hope and skepticism around the globe. Negotiators and national leaders have made pledges and proclamations aplenty — among them a vow to reverse deforestation within the decade — but it is undeniable that no pledge is set in stone, particularly when the signatories can hide behind (often intentionally) vague and non-binding language. Indonesia has already back-pedaled on its deforestation promise through a tweet from its Minister of environment Siti Nurbaya Bakar:

 “Forcing Indonesia to (reach) zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair…development must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation.”

For the same reason, a signature will hardly stop the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro from continuing the deforestation that has made the Amazon rainforest a carbon emitter rather than a carbon sink. A draft document from the conference has highlighted the lack of resources for vulnerable countries and preponderance of weasel words to create the appearance of being on target. More than ever, the need for global leadership is apparent.

Leadership is what is lacking on global climate progress, though both the United States and China continue to vie for it. President Joe Biden criticized Xi Jinping’s absence from Glasgow as an abdication of responsibility. The Chinese government, for their part, claimed that they were not given the opportunity to record a video message. Their team submitted a written statement that called for further action, but environmentalists have called their plan to achieve peak emissions by 2030 inadequate given the potential severity of the crisis.

Together, the U.S. and China account for 43% of global CO2 emissions. The former is the world’s largest oil consumer and GHG emitter per capita, while the latter holds the title of largest polluter overall and the world’s biggest energy user. Any action jointly taken by both nations, in spite of their rivalry, would be an example for other world leaders and private actors to follow suit. That simple fact draws further attention to the closing deal announced by U.S. and Chinese Climate Envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua. While acknowledging that the two would remain in disagreement on many issues, both stressed the importance of cooperation on climate, and China pledged to develop a national plan to limit methane emissions, despite their refusal to sign the Global Methane Pledge promoted earlier in the conference.

 But that did not stop the US and China from at least paying lip service to global climate cooperation: 

“Together, we set out our support for a successful COP26, including certain elements which will promote ambition,” Kerry said. “Every step matters right now, and we have a long journey ahead of us.”

Zhenhua vowed to work on limiting deforestation and meeting other climate targets alongside the U.S.: “Both sides will work jointly and with other parties to ensure a successful COP26 and to facilitate an outcome that is both ambitious and balanced.”

But there is a good reason to be skeptical of a partnership. The Biden administration has continued its predecessor’s firm rhetoric on China, actively seeking out new partnerships to help check and contain Chinese power. Just this week, a delegation headed by President Biden’s Deputy National Security Advisor for international economics and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Daleep Singh announced plans to invest in five to 10 large infrastructure projects around the world in early 2022 to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative – predominantly in Latin America. China remains an undemocratic power that has oppressed the Uighur and Tibetan peoples and acted aggressively toward Taiwan and others around the South China Sea. It is the greatest U.S.’s peer competitor ever – bigger and more powerful than the USSR was at its peak. 

Chinese investment into green energy technologies both domestically and through its Belt and Road Initiative has been strategically executed with the goal of leveraging economic influence. These investments have paid off: China is the world’s undisputed leader in solar cell production. Cheap labor, lax regulations, technological breakthroughs in wafer technology, and massive cash flows are at the core of this advantage. This also explains the PRC’s massive gains in nuclear power relative to the US. In September, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) reported China has 18 reactors under construction—representing more than 17 GW of generation capacity. The United States has two. Additionally, America’s legacy nuclear plants have an average age of 41 years, compared to China’s 8.

Giving nuclear energy short shrift was the greatest failure of COP26.

The rivalry – which China appears to be winning – is the defining conflict of the 21st century. Yet, it does not mean that cooperation is impossible. The U.S. and China continue to do business and are presently economically coupled so that the ramifications of the climate crisis and global effects of a rising temperature would be detrimental to both. 

It is in both countries’ interest to prevent things from approaching the point of climate-inflicted mass food shortages, ecological collapse, floods, and billion-strong refugee crises. But the U.S. will not forget that Chinese investment into the greening of its neighbors is made with an ulterior motive. With most of China’s strategic plans setting goals three to five decades in advance, it remains to be seen whether the Second Cold War can avoid going critically hot while Earth’s climate is doing the same.

Ultimately, the promises of COP26 and climate conferences like it must be viewed with economics, politics, and geopolitics in mind. Positive signs that efforts will be made to curb methane emissions and deforestation should be celebrated but taken with a grain of salt. 

To achieve genuine results on the climate, world leaders must put aside geopolitical ambitions and rivalries and seek and rapidly adopt new technological solutions and breakthroughs, which alone can make our future safe and secure.

With assistance from Danny Tomares and James Grant

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