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Biden must compel China and Russia to act on climate

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In recent weeks, a mini-Cold War has threatened to break out, with the American officials of all types becoming increasingly critical of authoritarian actions by both China and Russia. “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies. We’ve got to prove that democracy works,” President Biden starkly declared at his first Presidential press conference recently, just the latest in a series of tough statements the Administration has directed at Beijing and Moscow.

And yet, just hours after Biden’s press conference, the White House quietly tendered invitations to Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin to attend Biden’s Earth Day climate change summit on April 22. The reason is simple: The world needs China, by far the largest climate emitter, and Russia, the fourth largest, to reduce their emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.

When asked how America expects to gain climate concessions from China amid trade and other conflicts, Climate Envoy John Kerry suggested that climate could be “compartmentalized” from human rights and trade disputes. As unlikely as this may seem, there is in fact significant precedent for it. For decades, the USSR and U.S. conducted nuclear weapons summits and other negotiations even as they pursued proxy wars around the world, and indeed experts have compared climate change diplomacy to nuclear negotiations. China and the U.S., of course, began their modern day relationship in the shadow of the Vietnam War. This week finds Kerry in Beijing attempting to gain a more serious climate commitment from China ahead of the White House climate change summit on Earth Day, April 22.

But Biden is hardly content with such sanguine hopes. Instead he has proposed a strikingly ambitious strategy of clean energy technology policies to outcompete China and Russia and gain geopolitical leverage, attempting to show that capitalistic “democracy works” when it comes to both the economy and combating climate change. Rather than acquiescing to China’s subsidy-driven 70pc market share in lithium ion batteries, for example, the key component in electric vehicles, Biden is making U.S. production of electric vehicles a centerpiece of his $2.2 trillion domestic economic and infrastructure plan. Indeed, Biden has explicitly compared his made-in-America manufacturing proposals regarding clean energy to FDR’s “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Russia has long used cheap but methane-heavy natural gas to gain leverage over Europe. But this stranglehold would be extended if the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany becomes operational, despite U.S. sanctions. For Biden’s team the pipeline is just part of a larger strategic contest for European and global clean energy market share, in which lower-emitting U.S. gas could displace Gazprom’s notoriously leaky and high-emitting gas system. 

These strategies are important, but ultimately the U.S. and its allies must directly compel Beijing and Moscow to reduce their emissions. China claims it will be zero-emitting in the year 2060. Yet, right now Chinese emissions are 28pc of the global total, more than twice those of the United States. And China’s latest proposal under the Paris climate agreement allows its emissions to continue to grow for the next decade, effectively preventing global emissions from falling, even as climate scientists warn this is precisely what must occur to prevent climate catastrophe.

By comparison, the U.S. has been cutting its emissions for 15 years. Even despite four years of Donald Trump’s climate nihilism, America is largely on pace to its Paris emissions reduction target of at least by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. But Biden is set to announce far deeper U.S. cuts under the Paris agreement at his climate summit later this month, as much as 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, last year alone, the Chinese built three times the coal of the rest of the world combined, and are constructing or planning another 150 new coal plants. The U.S. has not built a single new coal plant over a decade, nor have most other Western nations. subsidize high-emitting technology for developing countries whose good will it is trying to buy.

Russia emits almost 5 percent of total global greenhouse gases, and given its dependence on oil and gas has no serious plans for reductions. Most concerning are Putin’s plans to establish a vast new oil and natural gas empire in the Arctic, where the melting of sea-ice due to methane emissions, increased shipping, and other largely Russian activities are already threatening to disrupt global climate stability.

The world simply cannot achieve climate protection without far more aggressive and verifiable climate actions being taken by the autocratic governments in Beijing, especially, and in Moscow, as well. The good news is the much tougher U.S. line on these authoritarian regimes is not necessarily in conflict with global climate goals. Indeed, isolating and confronting China and Russia about their many outrages could strengthen global resolve and exert pressure on each to adopt more serious climate policies. It may also create space for other leaders, not least Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who could play the good cop to Biden’s bad, as the UK prepares to host COP 26 in Glasgow this November.

Now is the time for Biden and other leaders of the world’s great democracies to not only cut their own emissions but also confront and force climate action from China and Russia. Otherwise, long-term climate security will soon enough head the list of problems made worse by the world’s major autocracies. 

Paul Bledsoe is a professorial lecturer at American University Center for Environmental Policy and strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton.

Tags Bill Clinton carbon emissions China Climate change climate emissions Donald Trump Environment greenhouse gases Joe Biden John Kerry Paul Bledsoe Russia

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