Last month, two veteran diplomats met in Shanghai to renew a 20-year-old working relationship and hammer out the text of a sensitive joint communiqué.
The communiqué in question — the joint US-China statement addressing the climate crisis — reconfirmed the two countries’ commitment to working together to meet the Paris climate goals. The two men who signed it — John Kerry, the US climate envoy, and his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua — are at the centre of hopes that the two countries can begin co-operating again to tackle climate change after the disruption of the Trump years.
“Kerry has taken a positive and realistic approach to working with the Chinese, and I don’t think it is an accident that China chose Xie as his counterpart and reunited the two men,” says Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor of political science at Villanova university in the US.
Todd Stern, who was chief climate negotiator for former US president Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank, suggests it is the right approach. “This kind of very constant, often difficult but very engaged dialogue between the two countries is what helped form the Paris agreement in the first place,” he notes.
Joe Biden, the US president, signed an order to rejoin the Paris agreement on tackling climate change on his first day in office. But the first test of that agreement will come in Glasgow in November, when countries meet at the UN COP26 climate change conference to assess progress towards the Paris targets — and possibly make them more stringent. Many analysts say that, for the process to work, Kerry and Xie need to rekindle the bond they formed during negotiations over the Paris agreement, not least since the two countries jointly account for 45 per cent of global carbon emissions.
Joseph Nye, former US assistant secretary of defence, wrote recently: “When it comes to new transnational issues like climate change and pandemics, success will require the co-operation of others . . . greenhouse gases and viruses do not respect borders or respond to military force.”
However, even as Kerry and Xie begin working together again, the bilateral relationship remains rocky for numerous other reasons, including Biden’s refusal to remove Trump-era trade tariffs and US criticism of human rights abuses in China.
Kerry insisted in February that other issues would not get in the way of climate negotiations. “This is a freestanding international crisis, which all of us need to deal with, no matter what,” he said. His immediate goal is to get the Chinese leadership to spell out more clearly what it will do to curb carbon emissions this decade.
While Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has set out an ambitious plan to become carbon neutral by 2060, he has said little about the measures his country will take before 2030.
“If China’s emissions are flatlining or even going up by 2030, that is ruinous for any hopes of keeping global warming below 1.5C,” says Stern.
Some believe Beijing’s lack of clarity on what it will do to cut emissions in the next few years shows the limits of even a well-functioning diplomatic partnership. “China’s promise to get to net zero does not mean very much,” says Taiya Smith, director of the China programme at the Climate Leadership Council. “There are very few indications China is serious about lowering its emissions in the short term.”
But others say smooth relations are vital, for reasons that go beyond setting emissions targets. In 2018, for example, the US-China trade war threatened to slow the rollout of green technology in the US when the Trump administration put tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels. Although sales picked up quickly again as Chinese manufacturers found ways around the US regulations, the row showed how other bilateral issues can disrupt progress on climate change.
Many also warn that scientists have been discouraged from working together by the Trump administration’s previous efforts to deter China from stealing US technology. “The Department of Justice has been busy trying to scare scientists off from working with each other — that is deeply problematic,” Seligsohn says.
If the two countries are to come together, the efforts of the EU and UK as brokers are likely to be key. “If you get the US, China and the EU all working together, then you are already accounting for around half of global emissions,” says Stern. “But you also spur a lot more action by others.”
But with both the US and China now signed up to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, some believe domestic politics must take the lead as each country rolls out policies to get them there.
“Climate change is fundamentally a domestic question,” says Smith. “We are foolish to think China is going to do what we want them to just because it is good for them.”