After four years of apathy toward the United States’ climate crisis, a new administration in Washington is trying to make good on the country’s years-old pledge to reduce carbon emissions drastically.
China, America’s top political rival and world polluter, sees an opening to exploit the U.S.’ erratic climate policy.
China’s demands that the U.S. improve its ties with the world’s most populated country before they work together to combat climate change shows how much has changed in the last year.
Former President Donald Trump, beholden to the gas and oil industries, cared so little about climate issues that he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord and rolled back environmental regulations that set the country back years in its fight against global warming.
Turning the Page
No one will mistake Trump’s predecessor, Joe Biden, as a champion of environmental issues. He’s a moderate Democrat who doesn’t support the progressives’ dream of a massive Green New Deal. But he’s a significant improvement from Trump on climate change. Biden has brought the U.S. back in the Paris Accord and backs climate-related provisions in the infrastructure bill that remains his largest policy focus.
U.S. officials know they can’t combat climate change without assistance from China, whose CO2 emissions from fossil fuels accounted for a whopping 27.9% of the world’s total in 2019, according to figures from the Global Carbon Atlas. The United States was responsible for 14.5%.
In another departure from Trump, Biden created a new position, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate. John Kerry, a former secretary of state and presidential candidate, was tapped to fill the role. Kerry recently traveled to China to discuss carbon emissions ahead of the U.N.’s November climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
According to various reports from the meetings, the negotiations between Kerry and his Chinese counterparts did not go smoothly, and China feels it has leverage to get more from the Americans. Hanging at the balance is arguably the most pressing issue facing the world this century.
After the meeting with Kerry, China Foreign Minister Wang Yi released a statement warning that “deteriorating U.S.-China relations could undermine cooperation between the two on climate change.” Wang said the U.S. “should pay attention and actively respond” to its list of demands it made over the summer for improved relations. Those demands included ending Visa restrictions on Chinese students and Communist members and ending the U.S. attempt to extradite Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou from Canada. China also called on the U.S. to remove sanctions and the ban on technology trade.
Don’t expect the U.S. to heed China’s demands. But the Chinese will continue using climate change as a negotiation tool with the United States for issues that have nothing to do with the environment. It’s unclear whether either country can do enough to roll back decades of damage.
Not only are the U.S. and China failing to meet their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, but not a single other country in the G20 is on pace to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to a CNN study. The G20 includes the world’s top 20 economies, which make up 80% of the earth’s emissions.
Climate Action Tracker found that six countries, including the U.K., have a climate plan that is “nearly sufficient.” That means minor improvements could put them on pace to meet their climate obligations.
The U.S. is at least improving. Under Trump, CAT labeled the U.S. as “critically insufficient.” Since Biden took office, the U.S. has been upgraded to “almost sufficient” domestically but “insufficient” on an international level, which takes into account a country’s “responsibility and capability.”
All countries bound by the Paris Agreement were supposed to update their Nationally Determined Contributions report by July 31. However, several countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, missed the deadline. China says it is working on its report but has not submitted it to the U.N.
Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, and Vietnam submitted the same or less ambitious plans than their original 2015 targets, derailing the Paris Agreement. In addition, the use of coal continues to be a significant obstacle, with China and India retaining major coal pipelines and the other countries continuing their use of coal.
The world must reach net-zero by 2050 to keep warming under 1.5 degrees. That’s when the amount of greenhouse gas emitted is not greater than the amount removed from the atmosphere.
Under all countries’ current pledges, temperatures would still reach 2 degrees, far higher than net-zero. Current temperatures are around 1.2 degrees higher than before the burning of fossil fuels.
The U.S. is publicly pledging to help on a global level. Biden announced in late September that he would work with Congress to double funds by 2024 to $11.4 billion per year to help developing countries combat the climate crisis.
While Biden received tepid praise following his announcement, not everyone was impressed at the $11.4 billion figure. As the world’s second-biggest polluter, there’s a belief the U.S. needs to do more. The E.U., by comparison, spent $24.5 billion on climate aid in 2019.
“The U.S. is still woefully short of what it owes, and this needs to be increased urgently,” Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, told Reuters.
Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, was even more direct.
“It’s quite easy to understand why the world’s top emitters of CO2 and the biggest producers of fossil fuels want to make it seem like they’re taking sufficient climate action with fancy speeches,” Thunberg wrote on Twitter. “The fact that they still get away with it is another matter.”
The Middle Man
Biden is stuck in the middle. Republicans in Congress, who could retake the majority in 2022, have little appetite for spending big dollars on climate issues. Progressive Democrats believe climate should be the country’s top priority.
Democrats initially hoped to pass a massive $3 million-plus infrastructure bill that would include numerous provisions to thwart climate change – especially in the wake of deadly flooding in Tennessee and fires on the west coast. But the infrastructure bill would need to pass a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, meaning at least nine Republicans would have to vote in favor of it.
Instead, Biden now favors a smaller $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would garner bipartisan support. Democrats could then push through a much larger $3.5 trillion climate and social safety net bill that could pass through the budget reconciliation, requiring a simple majority. That bill would include tax breaks for clean energy and clean transportation fuels while abolishing tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal production.
But there’s no guarantee that would pass, considering the Democrats hold just a one-vote majority in the Senate. Moderates want the infrastructure bill to pass, then consider the climate and social safety net bill. Progressives want assurances on the climate bill before they vote on the scaled-down infrastructure bill.
There’s a chance Biden could head to the U.N.’s climate conference without either bill passed, which would be a major blow to his agenda.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. is in a better place on environmental issues than it was a year ago. But between cross and intra-party fighting, and limited cooperation from China, the U.S. is nowhere near where it should be as a world leader in combating climate change.