John Kerry must be careful about striking a climate deal with China

Francis Rivera

The United States and China, the two largest carbon emitters in the world, issued a statement declaring their commitment “to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.” This came as John Kerry, the climate czar of President Biden, concluded a short trip to China, including a couple of days with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua in Shanghai. The statement was hailed because the United States and China together account for almost half of all carbon emissions.

“This is the first time China has joined in saying it is a crisis,” Kerry told reporters in Seoul last weekend. The American climate czar also said the two countries agreed on “critical elements on where we have to go.” For all the talk, Kerry did not obtain a commitment that Beijing would make new pledges during the virtual climate summit this week.

China signaled there will be no climate deal soon. “These goals are not easily delivered,” Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told the Associated Press. “Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid that this is not very realistic.” In the words of the Associated Press, “Countries are expected to announce more ambitious national targets for cutting carbon emissions ahead of or at the summit, along with pledging financial help for climate efforts by less wealthy nations.”

Xi Jinping announced last year that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The United States has a target of 2050. Such climate promises by Beijing are uninspiring, as its principal determined contribution in the Paris climate accord is to limit emissions around 2030. So in other words, China gave itself a window for more pollution until then.

China builds more than one large coal plant every week, according to the Global Energy Monitor. Last year alone, China built more than three times the number of plants fired by coal than all other countries combined. So there can be little progress toward halting the climate change caused by humans until China will get on board, but that does not mean the United States has to make concessions to induce critical action.

China does not honor promises. Why bother trying to obtain them? “There is no point giving up anything to get China to sign an international deal,” said Cleo Paskal from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies when asked about current climate efforts. Beijing is employing its “unrestricted warfare playbook.” Paskal continued, “Its goal is to get what concessions it can, hamstring its adversaries as much as possible, and then invoke the agreement when convenient and ignore it when it is not.”

Beijing, borrowing from the Soviet Union, is obsessed with comprehensive national power, which is one framework to rank the strength of countries. China, in its relentless campaign to become the most powerful country on the planet, can get there by either increasing its comprehensive national power or decreasing that of others. Climate is the perfect way to decrease the comprehensive national power of the United States by convincing the American presidents to take measures that will undermine the economy. China views climate in competitive or even selfish terms.

If Beijing perceives the climate situation to be a crisis, as Kerry says, it is because the people of China relentlessly and noisily demand cleaner air. It is the insecurity of the Communist Party that motivates its leaders to act. Thus, there is in short no reason to make concessions that China will make on its own. Kerry need not have traveled all the way to China to invite it to the climate summit. Biden had invited 40 leaders so Xi was not about to isolate himself. He in fact confirmed his participation this week and was certainly not going to pass on the opportunity to speak.

Countries will also meet this fall in Glasgow at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. At this international event, countries are supposed to increase their pledges. China may or may not ratchet up in Scotland, but does it matter what it promises in that setting or others? Until countries set down enforcement rules, and maybe not even then, the pledges from Beijing are worth nothing. China will either clean its air or not for its own reasons. Not for Kerry. Not for Biden. Not for the world.

Gordon Chang is a columnist and the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” You can follow his updates online on Twitter at @GordonGChang.

Tags China Energy Environment Government John Kerry Market Policy President

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