How Much Does U.S.-China Tension Threaten Decarbonization?

As China begins to re-open itself to the world and Beijing turns its attention to the annual political ritual of the “twin meetings” of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s climate policy stands at a crossroads. The second half of 2022 saw several key events that promise to alter China’s role in tackling climate change as the world’s second-biggest economy and largest emitter. The first of these events occurred in August 2022, when flaring tensions over Taiwan caused the temporary demise of cooperation on climate change between China and the United States, long seen as the only major constructive area in an otherwise deteriorating bilateral relationship. Then came the landmark 20th Party Congress, which cemented Xi Jinping’s commitment to transitioning China to a low-carbon economy while solidifying his power; and a dramatic COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where China for the first time faced significant pressure from other countries to contribute money to help fight climate change.

Throughout, a striking contradiction emerged between Beijing’s growing geopolitical isolation on one hand, and its apparent continued commitment to tackling global climate change on the other. The big question, for China and for the world, is whether political and economic decoupling threatens long-term decarbonization. Unfortunately for the planet, the answer is likely yes, at least to some extent. How much will depend in large part on how hard and how lasting China’s inward turn proves to be.

To understand how much China’s role in global efforts to address climate change has shifted over the past six months, it is helpful to recall Xi Jinping’s landmark speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020. While under the Trump Administration the United States had pulled out of the Paris Agreement, Xi positioned China to lead the charge on fighting climate change. Xi laid out a vision for global governance in which China would take on a central role in addressing shared global challenges based on “innovative, coordinated, green and open development for all.” In the same speech, Xi committed China to achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. At the time, this commitment was the most ambitious made by any developing country. For a short while, it looked as though Beijing aspired to reframe the global order, with a claim to climate leadership as one of its core objectives.

The advent of the Biden Administration, though, scrambled this strategy. Under President Biden, the United States once again laid claim to global leadership, especially on climate change. Biden also revived Sino-American cooperation on climate—even as his administration continued the Trump Administration’s hardline China policy in nearly every other area. This cooperation scored some notable successes, including a joint declaration during the 2021 Glasgow climate conference that was widely credited with resuscitating struggling talks. But the precariousness of this balancing act between cooperation on climate and contention in virtually all other areas became evident in August 2022, when Beijing suspended climate dialogue with Washington in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

This persistent tension between climate action and geopolitical rivalry was thrown into even sharper relief by the 20th Party Congress. Xi’s success securing a third term in power dominated headlines. Less noticed was that he doubled down on his past commitment to sustainable development in general, and decarbonization in particular. Xi’s personal commitment to climate action appears genuine. He speaks often of a longstanding concern for the environment, including in a letter to university students in which he described concluding as a young man that “harm to nature will eventually hurt mankind.”

At the last Party Congress, held in 2017, Xi’s work report highlighted his efforts to “lead international cooperation in response to climate change” and referred several times to “low carbon development.” In his work report to the 20th Party Congress, Xi built on these objectives, pledging China’s “commitment to sustainable development” and that “We will protect nature and the environment as we do our own lives. We will continue to pursue a model of sound development featuring improved production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems.”

More specifically, Xi committed China to “broadly establishing eco-friendly ways of work and life, steadily lowering carbon emissions after reaching a peak, fundamentally improving the environment, [and] largely accomplishing the goal of building a Beautiful China.” He went on to acknowledge this would not be easy, especially in terms of cutting emissions. “Reaching peak carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality will,” he warned, “mean a broad and profound systemic socio-economic transformation.” The key, Xi stressed, was gradualism: “we will…reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased way in line with the principle of building the new before discarding the old” and “transition gradually toward controlling both the amount and intensity of carbon emissions.”

Xi’s emphasis on gradualism hinted that China’s transition to carbon-free energy will be an extended one. He made clear that fossil fuels would remain part of China’s energy mix for the foreseeable future and that China would continue to exploit oil, gas, and coal reserves, pledging instead that they “will be used in a cleaner and more efficient way.” Unfortunately for the planet, this slow path toward decarbonization will mean the world will almost certainly breach agreed-upon targets to limit the amount of warming, set at 2 degrees Celsius of global average temperature increase over pre-industrial levels.

Other aspects of the 20th Party Congress highlighted how divides between China and other countries will continue to widen. Xi’s work report, and several decisions ratified during the Congress, made clear there would be no compromise on longstanding fissures between China, the United States, and other major countries including those on issues regarding human rights, territorial disputes with neighboring states, or the status of Taiwan. To the contrary, Xi promised to “crack down hard on . . . subversion and separatist activities by hostile forces.” Just as important, Xi’s vision for China’s future is a much more autarkic and self-reliant one, in which state control and domestic sources of growth play a more important role than foreign trade and investment.

These growing divides foreshadowed a dramatic shift in China’s role in international climate diplomacy during the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The foundation of Beijing’s international climate policy has always been its status as a developing country. This status, China and other developing nations have long argued, not only exempts it from binding obligations to reduce emissions, but also entitles it to financial compensation and technical assistance from the advanced industrialized nations that account for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions. This insistence effectively impeded global climate talks as China became the world’s largest emitter—it would be pointless, American politicians argued, to reduce its emissions unless China also agreed to do so.

Beijing and Washington found a fix to this dilemma in 2014, when China carved out a significant exception to its developing-country policy by jointly pledging alongside the United States to take steps to reduce its contribution to climate change and support an ambitious new international climate agreement. This willingness to compromise on its longstanding refusal to commit to emissions reductions in the absence of compensation and technology transfer paved the way for the 2015 Paris Agreement, but it also set China apart from its developing-country peers. On reducing emissions, known as “mitigation” in climate policy-speak, Beijing had put itself in a different category. On other issues, though, China planted itself firmly in the developing-country camp.

All of that changed at COP27, which took place in November 2022. Even before the conference began, Beijing found itself in the crosshairs of growing criticism for being the world’s largest emitter while contributing nothing to help countries adapt to climate change. “If you’re responsible for almost 30% of emissions,” the European Union’s climate chief said in September, “you cannot say, ‘But I’m a developing country, so don’t look at me.’” As the conference began, similar talking points were repeated both by small island developing states and the United States. China, this unlikely coalition of countries argued, should contribute more to helping poorer countries cope with climate change.

Revoking China’s dual status as both the world’s largest emitter and a developing country like any other proved central to COP27’s signature outcome, namely the creation of a new fund to compensate countries most heavily impacted by climate change. The deal was achieved only after the European Union’s insistence that large developing economies like China be called on to contribute to the fund but also be barred from receiving money from it was accepted by the G-77, the largest and most important grouping of developing countries—and a caucus in which Beijing had previously been a leading voice.

To be clear, the final COP27 decision avoided placing any specific additional obligations on China. The details of who should pay into and benefit from the new fund were deferred for further discussion by a special commission. But the deal reached between the E.U., U.S., and G-77 put China squarely on the defensive. Beijing, for its part, had previously said it might voluntarily contribute to the fund but had no obligation to do so—unlike developed countries. It also conceded that the most vulnerable countries should enjoy priority access to the fund, but stopped short of saying it would forego any claims to climate compensation through the new fund. All of this highlighted China’s discomfort with its new positioning: no longer seen by other developing countries as a peer, but as one that by dint of its relative wealth and contribution to climate change should be a source of compensation rather than a recipient.

This new and possibly durable divide between China and other developing countries underscores the extent to which Beijing has become more politically isolated from other nations, even as it has recommitted to tackling the most global of shared challenges: decarbonizing the world economy. The big question now is whether these trends are compatible or mutually contradictory. At the moment, the evidence seems to suggest the latter.

A number of academic studies indicate that free trade and international research collaboration between China and other countries lowers both technical barriers to and the financial costs of adopting clean energy technology. In particular, China’s unparalleled manufacturing economies of scale should, at least in principle, produce the solar panels and other technologies that will power a decarbonized world economy at the lowest cost. If China continues to drift further from other nations in international climate talks, its increasing isolation may likewise impede further progress. This may, however, be partly balanced by the restoration of climate ties with the United States.

What remains to be seen through 2023 and in the years that follow is how dramatic and durable China’s isolation will prove to be across a broad range of fronts beyond climate change. Despite steadily rising political tensions, U.S.-China trade boomed in 2022, and Chinese diplomats adopted a more conciliatory tone on some issues, prompting some observers to speak of a “charm offensive.” But amid reports that Xi Jinping is preparing to visit Russia’s embattled leader Vladimir Putin, it is far from clear that Beijing is willing and able to reverse its growing political and diplomatic isolation from the United States, European Union, and many other world powers.

The last half of 2022 witnessed a shift toward greater political decoupling between China and other major countries. It is a trend that is worrying for a number of reasons, and notably for global efforts to address the accelerating climate crisis. We should hope that in 2023 the momentum toward decoupling does not impede progress toward that most important of long-term goals, decarbonization of the global economy.