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China, US Can Cooperate on Climate Issues Despite Tensions, Experts Say

FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden, right, stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting, in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.
FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden, right, stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting, in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.

Amid a recent flurry of meetings that brought together officials from the United States and China, along with other world leaders, experts say the two countries can work together on climate change despite lingering tensions.

The two largest economies are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters but also rivals as China seeks to expand its influence around the world. Tensions have also risen amid policies toward Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.

Despite the geopolitical tensions, working together to implement the agreements at the recent G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia can be the first step, according to Belinda Schaepe, climate diplomacy researcher in London at E3G, a research group that focuses on cooperation among China, the European Union and U.S.

“The two sides should cooperate to implement the G-20 Bali Energy Transitions Roadmap that was endorsed by both Xi and Biden at the recent leaders' summit,” Schaepe told VOA in an email this week. “They should also support implementation of the G20 Sustainable Finance roadmap developed by the Sustainable Finance Working Group which China and the US co-chaired.”

She was referring to U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. They met in person for the first time since Biden took office and held more than three hours of talks during the G-20 summit, which brought together leaders from the 20 biggest economies.

Energy roadmap

The G-20 Bali Energy Transitions Roadmap includes boosting stable, transparent and affordable energy markets, as well as accelerating energy transitions by strengthening energy security and scaling up zero and low emission power generation. The G-20 Sustainable Finance Roadmap focuses on ensuring investment goes to achieving sustainable goals. The U.S. said in a statement that this will improve the credibility of financial institutions’ net zero commitments. These commitments are pledges to fight climate change.

The U.S. and China also resumed talks on climate issues at the recently concluded 27th United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP27, hosted by Egypt. China had put the bilateral cooperation on pause in August in protest after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

High-level cooperation between these two countries is critical to combat climate change, said Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley at a press conference at COP27 on potential U.S.-China cooperation.“If we lose sight that those high-level agreements and partnerships, even if they are trade or rights that need to be resolved through data, verification and trust, that is these watershed moments that really define climate success,” Kammen said. “If that partnership doesn’t extend between the two major powers here, it’s not going to accelerate our global decarbonization.”

Reviving the COP26 agreement

On a technical level, Schaepe said a climate declaration from the two countries, initiated in Glasgow, Scotland at last year’s climate conference, COP26, can offer some guidelines.

Both sides agreed last year to set up regulatory frameworks and environmental standards on cutting greenhouse gases this decade, as well as policies on decarbonization and deploying green technologies such as carbon capture.

At COP27, Kammen provided a case in point in terms of tech cooperation: His school cooperated with the city of Shenzhen on a project involving electric taxi cabs. It called for researchers to analyze data from about 20,000 electric taxis in the city and predict travel and queuing time at charging stations. With the real time information, he said, drivers could cut down time for each taxi by more than 30 minutes each day and allow the city to contract more green energy business.

Fossil fuel use

Domestic issues like improving Shenzhen’s electric taxi fleet are likely a focus for cooperation, according to Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She focuses on environmental governance in China and U.S.-China relations.

“A lot of the hard work on both sides is going to be domestic no matter what…the basic work of mitigation is based on a lot of domestic policy. Both countries know they need to be the leading countries for reducing emissions. It’s not a difficult issue to find common ground to discuss,” Seligsohn told VOA News in a video call last week.

The expert suggested the two cooperate on ensuring a just transition in the fossil fuel industry.

“Both countries have communities where the fossil fuel production is the major industry. The challenge is not just how you find jobs for the specific people who work in the fossil fuel [industry], but how you maintain the vibrancy of everything else from public schools to the grocery stores,” she explained.

Currently, China is home to more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants, according to Statista, the largest coal producer in the world, while the U.S. is the globe’s largest oil and gas producer, with more than 94,000 such facilities.

China’s coal output hit a record high in March, and a few months later, it was also seen to ramp up its coal supply to cope with the worst heatwaves in decades. In October, China again boosted its coal supply for winter heating. Currently, half of the country’s energy has been generated by burning coal, which is used to make electricity.

Carbon emissions in China, however, were projected to drop because of slowed economic growth due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Experts project the slowdown will be short-lived.

Uncertain future

Whether the U.S. and China are motivated enough to reduce the use of fossil fuels remains to be seen, according to Paul Harris, chair professor of global and environmental studies at the Education University of Hong Kong.

“What’s most likely is that they [the U.S. and China] will, as in the past, cooperate on things that tend to distract from the real problem,” Harris told VOA earlier this week in an email.

“Here I’m thinking of carbon capture and sequestration, and pie-in-the-sky favorite approach of polluters around the world because it makes us all think that we can keep on burning fossil fuels. We can’t.”

The climate expert said the cooperation will likely be on a bumpy road, as geopolitics likely will get in the way.

“There’s distrust on both sides, and Beijing is in no mood to compromise on its red lines, Taiwan especially,” he added. “The stop to Sino-US climate talks never should have happened. A real question is whether China is now serious about serious cooperation with the United States on climate change. I have very serious doubts.”

This story was published with support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.