The US and China, two of the most economically powerful countries in the world, have been going head to head over the years. Under the Trump administration, the US-China ties have been greatly impaired on many fronts, however, now under the recently-elected US President Joe Biden’s administration, both sides came back to the table for discussions on the climate issue, which raises the questions if a joint climate action can bring back the relations to normal or rather deepen the tension and further complicate the climate crisis.

Climate Summit

The climate crisis brings a new area of competition between the US and China, but it could also be a common ground for agreement and potentially even joint leadership on the world stage. After its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017, the US rejoined when Biden came to power. As two of the world’s biggest emitters, China and the US account for almost 45% of global fossil fuel emissions that are harming the atmosphere.

Getting back into the game, Biden held a virtual two-day climate summit on April 23. The summit was attended by 40 other world leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping. The summit was the first gathering between Xi and Biden since Biden took office. Ahead of the event, John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, met with his Chinese counterpart in Shanghai, where the two parties concurred on a collaboration to undertake the climate crisis with urgency.

At the summit, the US announced ambitious targets pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by 2030.  He also emphasized in a speech that the climate issue cannot be an individual mission and a joint action is needed. “America represents less than 15% of the world’s emissions… No nation can solve this crisis on [their] own, as I know you all fully understand. All of us — and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies — we have to step up.”

Meanwhile, Xi reaffirmed China’s previous pledge promising to peak emissions by 2030 and eventually achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. As tensions remain high between the two countries, Xi subtly referenced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under the Trump administration. He commented that the world “must maintain continuity, not reverse course easily; and we must honor commitments, not go back on promises.”

Pipe Dreams?

After a year of COVID-19 induced economic stagnation, many countries are putting economic growth in the forefront. Which begs the question whether these countries make good on their promise towards climate change? “China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinarily hard efforts from China,” Xi declared during the summit. Though China is already one of the few economies that are recovering rapidly from the outbreak, it came with a price on the climate crisis as China’s air pollution levels began soaring as well.

This brings up another point as China has completed a majority of its coal plants in 2020 in addition to being responsible for 85% of the world’s new coal plant proposals. Thus, instead of shifting the focus away from coal power and limiting emissions, China is doubling down. In the grand scheme of things, it is essential to understand China’s connection to coal as it will play a major role in whether the world can meet global climate targets or not.

Coal power plants in the poorer provinces in China are a way to increase Gross domestic product (GDP) especially after the economic crunch from the pandemic. This approach to coal power plants deviates from the Paris Agreement goals to phase out coal completely by 2030 and to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. In addition, it contradicts President Xi’s call for a global green recovery from the pandemic-caused economic recession.

The climate problem remains a collective concern and one country’s backsliding could postpone a clean future for the rest of the world. While China is moving forward with coal power plants, the rest of the countries are rerouting their power strategies to clean energy. Biden’s economic vision centers on an economy that will be powered by wind, solar, nuclear, and other renewables.

Biden promised that 100% of the US energy will be carbon-free by 2035. His infrastructure and jobs plan entails a clean electricity standard, tax credits to expedite wind and solar development, and $174 billion to be put into electric vehicle infrastructure alone. During the summit, he stated that the climate response will be a locomotive for providing and creating jobs.

Despite the grandiose promises by world leaders, the concern persists in whether these countries will stand by their promises on the long term when they already seem skeptical. Zhao Lijian, the Spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated that “the US chose to come and go as it likes with regard to the Paris Agreement… Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.”

Power Play

The climate crisis brings a new sort of tension between China and the US to an already heightened and aggravated situation due to the build up by the Trump administration. The tension increased during the former US President Donald Trump’s term has led to a trade war as the US imposed a first of many sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports, in which China retaliated by announcing plans to increase tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods.

The pandemic only increased the tensions with Trump’s xenophobic references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”. The back and forth between the two countries has led to the closure of both countries’ respective embassies as well as expelling several journalists from the US and China. Biden’s administration promised to restore relations with other countries, however, up to this point the US has not taken any concrete actions to undo the damage or reverse the ferocious attacks and sanctions that Trump imposed.

The lack of action by the new administration suggests a power struggle between the two largest economies in the world as well as the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, which inevitably suggests a belated solution for the climate crisis.