By Wenran Jiang
President Joe Biden’s most dramatic policy departure from his predecessor Donald Trump is to recommit the United States to the Paris Climate Conference and related international treaties. His hosting of 40 heads of states last week to discuss climate policy coordination marked an important step in that direction.
In a move that is to signal a reversal of the Trump administration’s general climate apathy and its unilateral withdrawal from international obligations, Biden announced more ambitious CO2 reduction targets for the United States, aiming at a 50 to 52 percent emissions reduction relative to the 2005 CO2 level by 2030—a significant improvement from the U.S. pledge of 26 to 28 percent reduction made during the Obama administration.
This reenergized commitment has led to other industrialized countries, which have a greater share in the emissions per capita and a larger role in the historical accumulation, to set similar new targets, with EU aiming at 55 percent, UK at 68 percent, Japan at 46 percent and Canada at 40-45 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. It has also been encouraging for the rest of the world, especially for some large developing economies. China, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter, has promised to reach peak emissions before 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, reaffirmed his nation’s commitment to install 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 aided along by an enhanced India-U.S. cooperation on climate.
In today’s multipolar world of increasing geopolitical and economic competition, it is rather remarkable that the leaders of the U.S., China, India, Russia, Japan, United Kingdom, and Canada not only all participated the virtual climate summit but effectively recognized climate change as the area most primed for cooperation. After all, it was only recently that China and India had a bloody conflict at their border, that President Biden called President Putin a “cold blood killer,” that a number of Western governments and parliaments accused China of “genocide” in Xinjiang, that the U.S. and Japan included Taiwan in their security declarations defying decades of deference to the One China policy, and that Sino-American relations have not improved much since Trump left office.
Put differently, common concerns around the climate crisis, a non-traditional and transnational security issue, have united key global powers that are involved in more traditional geostrategic rivalries with each other. This should be particularly important to China and the United States, as the two largest economies together emit about 43 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide.
The Biden administration, although backing away from calling China its major enemy, continues to treat Beijing as a major rival or competitor that it needs to hinder. To this end, Washington has developed a China engagement strategy that can be roughly summarized as the Three C’s: Confrontation, Competition, and Cooperation. It is still not entirely clear how the Biden administration will ultimately define each C.
Given the urgency of keeping the rise in global average temperatures to under 2 °C relative to the pre-industrial levels and the commitment to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in The Paris Agreement, policy makers in both Beijing and Washington would be well-advised to consider applying the 3Cs engagement strategy to their climate dealings:
- Confrontation: The two largest emitters should apply pressure on each other if either party fails to carry out its committed CO2 reduction targets or walks away from climate-related international obligations. They should also confront each other if bilateral relations in other areas begin to damage joint efforts in fighting climate change.
- Competition: China and the U.S. should compete in setting the new CO2 emission control and reduction targets with policy innovations. At the current level of commitments by major emitters, the world will not meet the Paris accord targets for the mid century or the end of the century. A healthy competition between the two superpowers in the area of climate action, not military or technological superiority, will set new norms for great power cooperation and for other countries to follow.
- Cooperation: Both countries have now allocated more resources to fighting climate change, and both are leading new technology innovators. While China has invested the most in renewable and alternative energy areas with some world leading production and technologies, America remains the more advanced technological and innovative leader. Instead of grandstanding and mutual containment, the two countries should combine their complementary strength and share their climate-related technological breakthroughs and new innovations, not only with each other but also with the rest of the world.
Without bold vision and the courage to redefine climate crisis as the primary security threat to all nations, there is clear and present danger that the traditional power politics and geostrategic rivalries will continue to overshadow climate change challenges. Taking meaningful diplomatic and strategic steps to prioritizing climate action at the level of great powers along the measures described remains the surest and the most efficient way to get the climate crisis under control.
Dr. Wenran Jiang (@WenranJ), Former political science professor and the founding director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, is President of Canada-China Energy & Environment Forum and a member of the IPD advisory board.