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21 January 2021

Can the US and China forge an alliance over the climate crisis?

Joe Biden must confront China's human rights violations while also promoting climate diplomacy.   

By India Bourke

This time four years ago, when Donald Trump entered the White House, those with an eye on the climate crisis despaired. His vow to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement threatened to undermine a united global response to climate change – at the very moment when such action was still tentative and new. Hopes rested instead on the many American mayors and governors who vowed to pursue green policies regardless, and also on China, where, just days before Trump’s inauguration, President Xi Jinping announced he would honour his obligations despite the US withdrawal.

Today, not 24 hours into Joe Biden’s term in office, the situation couldn’t feel more different. The 46th president of the United States has already signed an executive order to re-join the Paris Agreement, packed his staff with the largest team of climate experts ever assembled and vowed to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. The Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate will make passing new laws a challenge, but there is hope that the administration’s focus on climate could replace the US’s current politics of division with one centred on the common good.

As Bob Inglis, a former Republican representative and reformed climate sceptic (who now heads the conservative Energy and Enterprise Initiative), reminded me on the eve of the 2020 presidential election: polls show that 69 per cent of Americans support “aggressive” action on climate change, including a majority of Republicans. “Life has given Biden many lessons in empathy, such as the loss of his wife in an accident and the loss of his child to cancer,” Inglis said, suggesting such experiences may help the president to build a narrative of shared grief for the planet, and persuade Americans they are in the climate challenge “together”. Whether the US will meet that challenge “together” with China is another matter.

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Beijing’s transformed status, like the US’s, is critical on the global climate stage today. At the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, China was accused of “holding the world to ransom” over its failure to support carbon targets. A little over a decade later, that disengagement has been replaced with leadership and talk of building an “ecological civilisation”.

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Last September, China pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and peak emissions by 2030. The superpower’s investment in renewable energy has soared, making it a global leader in the field. And perhaps most crucially, as my colleague Jeremy Cliffe notes, its participation in multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the UNEP has grown, where the US’s has ebbed. China has even spoken out about climate justice, describing Australia as a “condescending master”, and seemingly siding with Pacific Island nations in their call for developed countries to take more responsibility for historic emissions.

Quite how a Biden presidency will change this trajectory remains uncertain. Will a shared aim of reducing emissions help smooth the way for a political and economic rapprochement between China and the US, easing trade war tensions and potentially helping steer China away from its human rights violations? Or will we instead see the birth of a new “climate race” between the world’s two superpowers – one that drives down global emissions, but also pits two philosophies of environmental care against each other? Or will the “soft power” appeal that climate action represented to China wane in view of the US’s renewed presence on the global stage?

To answer these questions we must appreciate the extent to which China’s environmental policy is a reflection of – and not a departure from – its core political ideology. In China Goes Green, the authors Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li look closely at China’s environmental policies and identify a largely coercive, technocratic and campaign-style approach – one that contrasts with a Western, liberal-democratic focus on equality and justice.

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In practice, this has produced many benefits for the environment. China’s “war against pollution” is perhaps the most notable example here, with the 2014 launch of a national air quality action plan at its centre. Results included outpaced targets and extraordinary improvements in health, as well as growing international speculation over whether China’s authoritarian approach was in fact the right and necessary response to the world’s environmental crisis.

But a top-down, target-based approach also has significant drawbacks, the authors note. It can lead to “sticking plaster” techno-fixes, such as wrapping melting glaciers in protective quilts, rather than tackling the root causes of the crisis. In some instances, the over-ambitious roll-out of central government targets has had a terrible human cost, including a coal ban that left thousands freezing in the severe cold. In others, China has applied a centralised, “cookie-cutter” approach to disastrous effect: when a scheme tailored to the particular environment of the Loess Plateau was expanded into vast monoculture plantations, it resulted in water scarcity and the collapse of local biodiversity.

Shapiro and Li also stress that China’s environmental protection is being used to extend the state’s over-arching and oppressive control of human lives. In the industrial east, green measures are being used as an excuse to implement greater levels of surveillance, such as installing facial recognition cameras on recycling bins. In other regions, ecological protection is being cited in the forced relocation of nomadic communities into cities. Even in its much-prized Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s environmental rhetoric has so far largely been accompanied by carbon-heavy investment and infrastructure. In this way, it becomes hard to separate China’s environment strategy from its disregard of human rights and freedom.

***

This is not to say China’s authoritarian approach to environmental (and other) policy will not change. As Marina Kaneti writes in The Diplomat: “The Chinese government’s views are not monolithic, but evolving and shapeable”, and a new online initiative called “Share your ideas with China’s Premier” is part of a wider push to echo the youth activism seen throughout the rest of the world.

According to Dimitri de Boer, the chief representative in China of the UK’s environmental law charity Client Earth, there are also signs that China is engaging more with its own civil society as well as the international community. For years, de Boer has worked together with Chinese government representatives towards strengthening environmental law, witnessing the rise of green law enforcement at a local level and arguing for preventative lawsuits. “I expect that China will increasingly apply law-based approaches to climate change,” he told the New Statesman.

“If we are serious about halting the climate crisis, then the question is not whether to work with China but how,” added Client Earth’s founding chief executive James Thornton. “President Biden and President Xi must build a relationship based on mutual trust and huge ambition. The days of isolationism are over and global leaders are in a unique position to provide joint leadership on tackling climate change.”

Yet there is perhaps a point at which the Chinese government will inevitably baulk at permitting freedom of speech and the exercise of legal rights: it seems unlikely, for example, that the state would tolerate the kind of “public trust” climate lawsuits brought against national governments elsewhere in the world. 

A defining challenge over the next four years of Biden’s tenure will therefore be how far the rest of the world should see China’s environmental achievements as distinct from its human rights violations (not just related to green measures, but also abuses in places such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang). It is a debate on which Biden may eventually have to take a stance. 

In his inaugural address, Biden quoted Saint Augustine’s description of a people as “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love”. Biden’s speech highlighted both democracy and climate action as two pillars of such unity. China may now share a common concern for the planet, but environmental policy could yet divide the two superpowers.

[See also: China’s persecution of the Uighurs is a moral outrage – the UK must show leadership]