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The Big Picture

Diplomatic Challenges for US Climate Push

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group
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  • The US has embarked on a round of diplomacy aimed at shoring up climate commitments ahead of Glasgow talks.
  • But Washington’s bid to separate climate change from other geopolitical issues hasn’t gone down well in Beijing.
  • The US is also confronting a push by least-developed nations to delay the summit until it can be more widely attended.

US officials are in a weeks-long sprint to push for more aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Since late August, the US climate envoy John Kerry has visited three of the world’s largest economies — China, India and Japan. US President Joe Biden is scheduled to host world leaders on Sep. 17 to “have a candid conversation … about what needs to happen before Glasgow and beyond,” as one senior administration official put it Wednesday.

The top ask from Washington right now is additional commitments for further emissions cuts. While a handful of countries — including the US — announced greater reduction pledges in April, momentum has since stalled. US officials are also hoping leaders from other nations will outline more aggressive policies to back up their pledges, and Washington wants to see countries stop green lighting and financing coal projects. With current actions, global emissions in 2030 are expected to be about twice the level required to stay within the 1.5ºC target, according to Climate Action Tracker.

The Biden administration and Democrats in Washington are trying to make up for lost time after former US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement and overturned many policies aimed at reducing emissions. Biden on Friday will tout executive actions on transportation and the electricity sector, as well as funding initiatives for carbon capture and grid storage, the official said. The US will also sponsor an effort alongside the EU to reduce global methane emissions. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are debating legislation that could overhaul the US energy sector.

Chilly Reception

But the messaging from Washington isn’t going down well everywhere, and Kerry received a particularly chilly reception in China. Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice President Han Zheng only met with him virtually. Worse, Wang publicly warned that climate action could not remain an “oasis” in the otherwise fraught relationship, and Beijing reiterated demands that trade sanctions be lifted before climate cooperation takes place.

The US-UK-Australia security partnership announced this week centered on helping Australia build nuclear-powered submarines will only deepen tensions. Beijing accused the trio of using "nuclear exports as a tool of geopolitical games."

Chinese officials are staunchly opposed to compartmentalizing climate — something Kerry said he would do when he came on board. In Beijing's view, that translates to cooperating on climate goals without getting anything in exchange.

Kerry himself acknowledged China's concerns after his meetings there. “If you have three major [Chinese] leaders, publicly, telling Biden’s climate envoy that this is affecting outlook, it affects the outlook,” Kerry said.

Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers argued this week that insulating climate from other priorities with Beijing — be those human rights concerns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the trade relationship, militarization of the South China sea, or a host of other issues — is a mistake. “Our China strategy consists of a lot of demands, and China doesn’t really understand which are most important,” he told a virtual event hosted by the industry-backed Climate Leadership Council Wednesday. “I certainly think climate change should be absolutely crucial among our priorities. But I think it needs to be an integrated dialogue,” he said.

China's Priorities

Moreover, Kerry’s ask for a “dramatic turnaround of China’s coal trajectory” was viewed as patronizing in Beijing, which sees coal as an element of energy security at home and a source of jobs, as well as a key component of its Belt and Road Initiative. “Coal burning is polluting. People in coal-using societies know that,” a senior Chinese academic told Energy Intelligence. “But to pledge, and act on, curtailing coal investment without addressing the needs for electricity can be contentious, too.”

While Xi said earlier this year that China will start decreasing coal consumption from 2026 onward, many argue that’s too late, particularly if more coal plants are locked in between now and then.

The US’ climate talks-oriented time frame also may not line up with Chinese planning priorities. While some early sectoral targets are in place, state planner the National Development and Reform Commission and the relevant ministries are still working on setting wider carbon emissions and energy mix targets, which may not come until late this year. Beijing may also want to keep things under wrap until the COP26 meetings, where it might then release possibly upgraded targets in an attempt to steal the limelight.

Climate action itself has become an area of potential rivalry. Biden has made the fight against climate change the engine of a new industrial policy that will only up the competition with Beijing in sectors where China currently leads the world such as solar, electric vehicles and critical minerals.

Climate Stick

Some argue the US should wield more of a stick when it comes to climate negotiations, rather than emphasizing cooperation. “You have to generate leverage,” says Gabriel Collins with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Collins advocates the US deploying a carbon border tax that would levy a tariff on economies that don’t have strict emissions controls at home. The aim of those, as with the EU's proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism, is to keep domestic industry from having to compete against overseas manufacturers relying on cheaper but more carbon-intensive inputs. “They need access to foreign markets,” Collins says. A carbon tax is a lever, “probably the only one powerful enough to bring them to the table.”

Consistent Diplomacy

Beijing’s climate stance isn’t the only diplomatic challenge that lies ahead for US and other states that want to see more committed climate action. After discussions scheduled for last year were canceled because of the pandemic, a lot of the working-level meetings just haven’t taken place, points out Brian Flannery of Resources for the Future. That has left a lot of work to be done on how to benchmark progress made on emissions reductions pledges and more technical issues like international carbon markets, he says.

And then there’s the complication that some of the least-developed nations are calling for a delay to the negotiations altogether, citing the continued difficulty with pandemic-related travel. “The fact that the least-developed nations are saying ‘postpone the meeting’ is a warning sign,” Flannery said.

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