New cause for climate optimism? America’s rivalry with China


It also boosted hopes that US economic competition could succeed where Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry’s diplomacy has largely failed – by securing new commitments from Beijing to cut greenhouse gas output. from China.

“What it does is show the Chinese that the United States is actually going to be real in this game and not just going to talk about it, and I think that’s a benefit for everyone,” Jake said. Schmidt, senior strategic director of international. climate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental research and advocacy group. “The planet will benefit from this healthy competition.”

The IRA was signed less than two weeks after Beijing suspended cooperation with the United States on climate change – a dialogue that had been encouraged by Kerry and seen as an oasis of partnership amid more strategic hostility. wide – in protest against the visit of the Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan.

With that, the twinning that made the Paris Agreement possible and more recently helped facilitate a deal at last year’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, has been severed.

These two developments, according to current and former diplomats and climate experts, signal the end of any hope that the United States could influence Beijing through appeals based on mutual accountability. On the contrary, competition is in fashion.

Now the United States is putting unprecedented money behind its bet that it can beat China to market while seeding a national clean energy base. The $369 billion in incentives to sprout battery and electric car makers, appliance makers and other clean industries more than quadrupled the second-largest US green investment, the $90 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Collectively, national plans submitted under the Paris Climate Pact to cut emissions are not enough to stop the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius, the line that scientists say will lead to catastrophic change. China and the United States – together responsible for around 38% of global greenhouse gas emissions – will largely determine how fast the planet warms.

Kerry has spent much of the last 18 months holding closed talks with Chinese officials, cajoling, negotiating and pressuring Beijing to raise its climate targets.

China had pushed back against Kerry’s pleas, pointing out that the United States may have set tough goals, but was doing little to achieve them. In regular knowledge-sharing sessions with their EU counterparts, diplomats in Beijing have smugly asserted that they have nothing to learn from the Americans when it comes to overhauling a fossil fuel-based economy.

But now Kerry’s sell-out rhetoric is “significantly bolstered” by the Cut Inflation Act, said Todd Stern, who led US climate talks under the Obama administration.

Biden’s signature on the biggest climate spending package in US history was barely dry as his climate envoy tweeted that the IRA “puts America on track to meet our climate goals and encourages others around the world to increase their efforts”.

The massive investment restores credibility to the United States’ battered international reputation after years of federal inaction and former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Stern said.

“Before and after, there’s no comparison,” he said, adding that Kerry’s position “would have been pretty darn weak without it.” China’s questions about US delivery are “not really credible at this point,” he said.

But this did not alter China’s diplomatic coldness. US Representative in Beijing Nicholas Burns urged the Chinese to reconsider their decision to suspend cooperation in light of the new domestic agenda.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson fired back on Twitter: “That’s good to hear. But what matters is: can the United States deliver?

“You can bet” on that, Burns retorted.

In a statement, Chinese government spokesman Liu Pengyu pointed to the June Supreme Court ruling limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, as well as the tariffs on Chinese solar equipment and a ban on importing materials. from Xinjiang, where the United States says China uses forced labor.

“These contradictory measures have the world questioning the ability and seriousness of the United States on climate change. The United States should seriously fulfill its historic responsibilities and obligations on climate change and stop making excuses for its inaction,” he said.

The Chinese taunts sting because the United States is already catching up in the race to lead the clean economy.

While China is the world leader in building new coal-fired power plants and accounts for roughly half of all the coal burned globally each year, all that black smoke is masking a revolution happening on the clean side of its energy sector.

Public and private investment in clean energy in China amounted to $381 billion last year, according to the International Energy Agency. This exceeds all of North America by $146 billion. The share of electricity generation supplied by renewables is higher in China than in the United States, while the number of solar panels and wind turbines installed across China leaves their American rivals in the dust.

Despite being Tesla’s homeland, the United States has also missed the jump on electric vehicles. Chinese buyers bought more electric cars and vans – 3.3 million – in 2021 than the whole world bought in 2020. Sales in the first quarter of 2022 then doubled year-on-year. In the United States, growth has started to pick up, but from a much lower base.

At the same time, China has built large-scale local industries. In designing “Made in America” ​​provisions in the IRA, the Biden administration was hyper-aware of China’s dominance in building batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.

“This is a competition for global leadership and the soft power of global leadership…and for leadership in the clean energy economy,” said Nigel Purvis, CEO of consultancy firm Climate Advisers who worked previously on climate for the State Department.

Recent US moves highlight a growing – often bipartisan – interest in using industrial policy to counter China, with Congress passing or considering legislation that would arm the world’s largest economy to fight China in the market. growth of clean technologies.

The IRA would spend tens of billions of dollars on incentives for manufacturers to make batteries and other clean-tech parts in the United States rather than relying on China. A bill to relax licensing rules for all types of energy, which is expected to be voted on before September 30, is being touted as reducing reliance on Chinese minerals. And 24 House Republicans joined Democrats in approving $280 billion in incentives last month to encourage US semiconductor production.

“It is absolutely true that Chinese investment in the supply chain is massive compared to what we are talking about. And the tools they use are incredibly powerful,” said John Coequyt, director of government affairs at think tank RMI. “We tend to subsidize deployment and it’s new to focus more on manufacturing. It sort of brings us closer to the set of tools that the Chinese used.

Economic signals from China are fueling a growing view among diplomats and climate watchers that Beijing’s economic interest is leading to where the United States and others might have hoped to push it.

“China decided years ago that clean energy transition was a strategic advantage for them,” Schmidt said.

The impacts of climate change on China’s precious economic growth reinforce this view. Weeks of epic heat and brutal drought are straining power supplies and affecting production across the country, just as President Xi Jinping prepares for a series of critical meetings later this year that could cement his grip long term on power.

It’s a reassuring thought for Western diplomats who admit that changing China’s foreign policy has become even more difficult since Beijing severed ties with the only foreign country that has ever had a significant influence on its choices. of emissions.

“We have to accept the reality in which cooperation with China is going to be difficult, if not impossible,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “None of our actions should be conditional on China’s willingness to cooperate. But they should not be made assuming that China will do nothing. »


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