Climate politics: Why the old diplomacy no longer works

John Kampfner outlines why suspicion between China and the US means the climate crisis will be tackled only if governments see policy gains in radical action.

Feature Published 13 October 2021 Updated 21 December 2021 7 minute READ

John Kampfner

Former Executive Director, UK in the World Initiative

It is ‘code red for humanity’ declared UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The world, he exclaimed, is rapidly running out of time. The language on climate change is becoming ever more imperative as successive reports set out the consequences if emissions are not cut significantly – and urgently.

As Chatham House’s recent annual climate risk report points out, the current crop of national commitments is leading the world to heat up by close to three degrees. Temperatures such as those would trigger what scientists call a ‘cascade’ in which one disaster provokes another with ever wider economic, social, and geopolitical consequences.

Chart of annual CO2 emissions at 196.90 million tonnes in 1850

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

That is the future. The present and past are already alarming enough. The World Meteorological Organisation says the number of disasters such as floods and heatwaves driven by climate change has increased five-fold in the past 50 years.

Chart of annual CO2 emissions at 1.95 billion tonnes in 1900

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

This is the context as world leaders and experts head to Glasgow for COP26. Just before that, the G20 meets in Rome. The summits are taking place at the worst possible time with countries struggling to see off the pandemic and restart their economies. 

Chart of annual CO2 emissions at 6.00 billion tonnes in 1950

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

Chart of annual CO2 emissions at 36.44 billion tonnes in 2019

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

They are promising to ‘build back better’ but early evidence shows they are building back as fast as possible – which means doing whatever it takes to kick-start growth, including high-emitting infrastructure projects.

Chart of annual CO2 emissions at projected 37.94 billion tonnes in 2021

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

After an enforced hiatus in 2020, emissions figures for 2021 are extremely worrying with little sign of improvement – the projected global increase of 1.5 billion tonnes, if correct, would be the second largest increase in history.

The climate crisis amid global competition

All of this is coming when the most dangerous big-power rivalry since the Cold War is escalating. The US regularly chastises China over its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and its clampdown in Hong Kong, alongside threats to Taiwan, tensions in the South China Sea, and cyberattacks. The announcement of AUKUS – a joint US, Australia, UK project to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia to deploy in the Indo-Pacific – has further exacerbated tensions.

Climate is surely the ultimate test of whether it is possible to simultaneously compete for dominance of the world and collaborate to save that world. If the US and China cannot work together on this, if they cannot bring other countries along with them, then where else can they? Logic dictates that without them coming together, no meaningful progress will be made, multilaterally or bilaterally. To put it another way, we are all doomed.

The evidence so far suggests that conventional diplomacy – a combination of carrot and stick, of the handshake and the megaphone – is not working fast enough. Yet all sides know they must act rapidly in order to prevent catastrophe, not least for their own populations.

The evidence so far suggests that conventional diplomacy – a combination of carrot and stick, of the handshake and the megaphone – is not succeeding. Yet all sides know they must act in order to prevent catastrophe, not least for their own populations.

The most likely triggers for radical change lie elsewhere. They are based on national self-interest. Which big power, which political system, will seize the mantle of the green global citizen? Which will seize the huge economic benefits arising from green technologies? These two challenges stem from rivalry and competition. The third one is self-preservation. At what point will populations begin to appreciate that inaction on climate is imperilling them? How bad will it have to get before they rise up and demand radical change, even in authoritarian states?

Climate diplomacy in the traditional manner

The major powers are at least trying old-fashioned diplomacy. In the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, the US held a series of talks with China. At the first meeting, in Alaska in March, China’s senior foreign-affairs official, Yang Jiechi, launched a tirade against Antony Blinken after the US Secretary of State attacked China’s human rights record.

In April, President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, became the first senior official of the new administration to visit China, for talks with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua. President Xi Jinping then attended an online leaders’ climate summit convened by Biden. Kerry and Xie have talked, online and face-to-face more than a dozen times.

It remains unclear what these various meetings have achieved. Their most recent, in Tianjin at the start of September, was described as ‘constructive and detailed’ – about as good as it gets in the circumstances. So what are the prospects of one side coaxing the other to improve its climate performance?

First the positives. COP26 is taking place a year late due to the pandemic, and the time-lag has provided a certain distance from the Donald Trump era. Within days of taking office, Biden signed a series of executive orders on the environment, directing the government to make climate change a central issue of his administration’s economic and national security policy . Among its measures were orders to freeze new oil and gas leases on public lands and double offshore wind-produced energy by 2030, alongside fulfilment of a campaign pledge to re-join the Paris accords.

John Kerry speaking at a Chatham House event at Kew Gardens, London.

In Kerry, the US has a negotiator of considerable stature internationally and he has certainly been energetic, shuttling around the world in an attempts to cajole states to sharpen their commitments.

His Chatham House speech on July 9 was a model of common sense, calling out India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and others which have either delayed setting new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to cut emissions, or submitted targets identical or weaker than previously. 

Kerry praised China for ‘unprecedented economic growth’ but warned that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is impossible if China waits until 2030 for emissions to peak, declaring it is ‘not a mystery’ China and the US have many differences but that climate cooperation is the only way to ‘break free from the world’s current mutual suicide pact’.

But there are three fundamental weaknesses in the American – and, by extension, its allies – negotiating strategy. Firstly, the international community is factoring in the strong possibility of a return of Trump – or at least ‘Trumpism’ – to power.

Given the extent to which climate is a deeply polarizing issue in the US, some of the most radical climate action by Biden will have to be signed by executive order which can be swiftly reversed.US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry gives a speech at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, southwest London on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Climate diplomacy in the traditional manner continued

Secondly, the Biden administration insists climate talks can and must be separated out from other issues of concern. Kerry has sought to kill from the outset the notion that China could buy America’s silence on human rights and other issues as the price of cooperation on climate.

This tough line appears to be working as most Republicans and Democrats are holding to it, but civil society groups are challenging the approach. In July, 40 progressive groups wrote a public letter stating ‘nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new cold war between the US and China’. China hawks were furious with the intervention.

China-US climate cooperation cannot be separated from the wider environment of China-US relations.

Wang Yi, Foreign Minister, People’s Republic of China

China also made clear on the eve of Kerry’s Tianjin talks that any thought of splitting climate from other policy issues is a non-starter. Its foreign minister Wang Yi described joint efforts against global warming as an ‘oasis’ but added the oasis ‘could be turned into a desert very soon’. In case the Americans had not got the message, he summarized that China-US climate cooperation ‘cannot be separated from the wider environment of China-US relations’.

Biden’s tough talk on climate is more challenging than collaborative. His Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice calls for a series of audits of climate action around the world, ensuring those who do not fulfil, or actively undermine, the Paris Agreement pay the price. That is clearly aimed at China. Absent, however, are any particular incentives for China to look benignly on American pressure.

The third weakness is perhaps the most intractable. Even before the Afghanistan debacle, American power – hard and soft – is not what it was. Exhortations to China or to other countries do not have the effect they once did. Even US allies are doing their own thing. The European Union (EU) Green Deal is one of the most radical on offer while, by contrast, Australia – whose strategic importance in countering China in the Indo-Pacific is growing – is one of the world’s most defiant climate laggards.

The US failure so far to keep to its side of the economic bargain on climate has fuelled further misgivings. The Biden administration has struggled to persuade wealthy countries to meet their long-standing commitment to stump up $100 billion in climate finance per year to help poorer states deal with the effects of climate change.

They have been warned adaptation costs, currently estimated at $70 billion per year, could soar four-fold per year by 2030. Developing countries stress this funding is key to their ability and willingness to commit to ambitious climate targets, and therefore to broader ambitions of global net-zero.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a video screen as he addresses the UNGA.

Playing environmental politics

In his speech to the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Biden vowed to double the US contribution to the target and to bring allies along with him.

Biden’s rhetoric was compelling but it is questionable how substantial his claims will turn out to be, whether he gets the extra money through Congress, or if others will come on board to hit the $100 billion. Even if money is found at the eleventh hour this year, there is no guarantee it will be met in subsequent years.

The United Nations (UN) was the venue for a dramatic intervention in 2020 by China when Xi told the General Assembly his country aimed to have carbon emissions peak before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, calling on all countries to ‘pursue innovative, coordinated, green, and open development for all’.

Although China had given this emissions peak date before, it had previously not committed to a date for net zero – and it did so ahead of the US. This was a remarkable announcement which blindsided Chinese and international officials and experts.Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a video screen as he addresses the annual gathering in New York City for the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mary Altaffer - Pool/Getty Images)

Playing environmental politics continued

The history of past climate conferences weighs heavily. Bernice Lee, an expert in China’s environmental politics points out that Beijing was castigated as the villain at the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Last-minute talks with the Obama administration ensured last-minute success in Paris in 2015.

Not wanting to be blamed is a big part of the Chinese mentality

Bernice Lee, Chatham House

China’s climate announcements since September 2020 have been less impressive. The Communist Party’s 14th five-year-plan, covering the period to 2025 and published in March 2021, mentions carbon neutrality only once in a 75,000-word text. And Xi’s recent UN speech broke new ground in only one specific area when he pledged China would build no more coal-fired power projects abroad.

Beijing has been under pressure to end coal financing overseas following similar announcements by South Korea and Japan. But this concession is relatively low-hanging fruit as recipient countries were becoming increasingly wary of such projects. And, as with Biden’s announcement on financing, the devil will be in the detail. Does the pledge apply only to state-funded projects, or will the government insist that Chinese private funding follows suit?

Choreography matters in moments such as these. China is keen to show its announcements are not because of pressure but are entirely on its own terms. ‘The Chinese won’t be pushed around’ says Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, ‘nor will other countries. This is a game of waiting – and hoping for the signals’.

Annual percentage change in CO2 emissions in 2001

Measures of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels and cement production only. Source: Our World in Data

China has come a long way, cleaning up air pollution and investing heavily in renewable energy. Its fixation with GDP growth is not what it was, and the term Gross Ecosystem Product has come into official fashion. 

Annual percentage change in CO2 emissions in 2009

Measures of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels and cement production only. Source: Our World in Data

Annual percentage change in CO2 emissions in 201

Measures of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels and cement production only. Source: Our World in Data

Back in 2005, as a regional party chief, Xi cited an old Chinese proverb ‘clear waters and lush hills are worth a mountain of gold and a mountain of silver’. Known as the ‘two mountains theory’, this has become a mantra for regional governments to build a more ‘ecological civilization’.

Annual percentage change in CO2 emissions in 2015

Measures of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels and cement production only. Source: Our World in Data

Annual percentage change in CO2 emissions in 2019

Measures of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels and cement production only. Source: Our World in Data

Alongside this are economic opportunities. China has seized on the potential benefits in new greener technologies for domestic and export markets and Xi is keen to harness the dynamic in this ‘race to the top’ – both in terms of growth and international reputation.

Wind-solar Hybrid Photovoltaic Power Station In Zaozhuang.

Soft power competition also sits alongside economic competition. Which country, which system, can transition into a more competitive 21st century clean-energy, zero-carbon economy is the long-term goal, but that remains a long way off.

Five of the top ten global wind turbine manufacturers are Chinese – such is the scale of China’s economy it produces more renewable infrastructure than the rest of the world combined, bringing down the cost of solar, wind, and other resources.

Even in a country as tightly controlled as Xi’s China, domestic pressures are considerable.

For all the flowery talk of GEP, coal remains mission critical for growth, comprising two-thirds of total energy consumption.

China now generates over half of the entire world’s coal-fired power and is increasing capacity all the time.Aerial view of a wind-solar hybrid photovoltaic power station on September 12, 2020 in Zaozhuang, Shandong Province of China. (Photo by Li Zongxian/VCG via Getty Images)

Playing environmental politics continued

Experts say it must shut down more than 500 coal-fired plants within ten years to have any chance of reaching its climate targets and, for the moment, that is not happening. China is in the throes of a post-pandemic ‘smokestack recovery’. Emissions have grown at their fastest pace in more than a decade, increasing 15 per cent year on year in the first quarter of 2021.

Huotari argues the reliance on coal is based on wider considerations. ‘Resilience and energy security are paramount in Chinese policymaking. Coal has always been central to that,’ he says. ‘It is very hard to give up that mentality.’ Recently, ten provinces were forced to ration energy because of a slump in production, triggering alarm and pleas for more, not less, coal.

Isabel Hilton, founder and senior adviser at China Dialogue, summarizes the dilemma: ‘China is acutely aware of the opportunity side of climate change and has positioned itself for more than a decade to be the world’s dominant supplier of low carbon goods and services,’ she notes. ‘But domestically, despite a rapid deployment of renewables, the complicated economics of the transition in a country still heavily dependent on coal, and concerns about energy security in an increasingly tense world, appear to be slowing the pace of China’s effort alarmingly.’

Climate justice on the rise in China

The problem goes beyond economic considerations. As in the US, climate justice is gaining prominence in China, with a suspicion that jobs related to renewable energy and environmental transformation are less-well paid and have less social value than traditional industries. This reflects culture clashes playing out across the world between younger, greener, city dwellers and older, more traditional, citizens in ‘rust belt’ towns.

In the case of China that is predominantly, but not exclusively, in the north-east of the country, where an increasing nationalism is taking hold in which climate change is denounced as ‘Western pseudo-science’ and a conspiracy to stem China’s growth.

Set against that are the shocks experienced in recent years – in 2021 alone, wildfires raged in Canada and the US Pacific Northwest as temperatures topped 50 degrees, New York’s subway was engulfed by water, floods tore through German, Belgian, and Dutch towns and villages.

Importantly, this was in China too. On 17 July, terrified subway passengers in Zhengzhou stood in chest-high water as almost one year’s rain fell in just three days and more than 300 people were killed across Henan province. As a major transport hub, Zhengzhou’s lines were built only five years ago and were supposed to be able to withstand climate emergencies.

Map of annual CO2 emissions in 1980

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

Local authorities were subjected to unprecedented criticism on social media, with fury over infrastructural shortcomings and failures in weather forecasting. Xi hesitated to go there, foreign journalists were harassed when seeking to interview affected residents, and state media dwelt instead on the ‘heroic’ efforts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the gratitude of those rescued.

Map of annual CO2 emissions in 1990

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

Map of annual CO2 emissions in 2000

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

Climate is producing a series of potential vulnerabilities for China, a potential cascade. The East coast, where the wealth is concentrated, is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels, and power supply shortages have occurred in several cities. Like Biden, Xi has declared the climate crisis to be a strategic priority and an issue of national security.

Map of annual CO2 emissions in 2010

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

Map of annual CO2 emissions in 2019

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production. Source: Our World in Data

He has good reasons to act. Food security and water resources would be imperilled by runaway climate change. The party worries particularly about protests among the rural population, which could happen with another big weather catastrophe resulting from climate change, or because of further measures to diversify away from traditional energy leading to power cuts and job losses. The government has to look in both directions at the same time.

Preventing runaway climate change

With a nod to its domestic audience, as well as to developing nations and the international community, China’s leadership demands others cut it some slack. It regularly falls back on the argument that it and similar countries are merely catching up and should not be subjected to the same strictures as the US and Europe which have been emitting far more for far longer.

What matters more – ongoing emissions or accumulated emissions? The US is historically the largest emitter, accounting for almost a third of global emissions. The EU – including the UK in the past – is at 22 per cent and China at 13 per cent. But China is catching up steadily and some estimates suggest if it continues at its current pace, by 2035 it will have overtaken all others – an ignominious milestone for China and devastating for the world.

Tim Benton, director of the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House, warns of the parable of the frog and the scorpion. A scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog worries that the scorpion might sting it, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog agrees, lets the scorpion climb onto its back and begins to swim. Midway across, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. It couldn’t help it, it said, it was in its nature.

You can pretend you are moving the silos forward but there comes a point at which you have to make trade-offs.

Leslie Vinjamuri, Chatham House

The bidding war for green credentials will intensify and will contain virtue signalling and admonishments. The real challenge takes place after COP26 when climate issues may no longer dominate the media and it will become about more humdrum questions of complying with targets.

This is a proxy battle taking place within a wider cold war and the competitive instincts of the US and China propel both to try to outshine each other in new technologies and surprise announcements. Ultimately though, more would be achieved if suspicion reduced and collaboration increased. As Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House, points out, the world struggles to make meaningful climate progress in a vacuum.

Preventing runaway climate change contd.

This is the second in a series of three reports on cooperation in an era of rivalry, drawing on expert analysis and recommendations from Chatham House. The first report examined COVID-19 and vaccine nationalism.