China and the United States are playing very different tunes about how they should bear the responsibility of tackling climate change, underlining their rivalry despite this being an issue they both agreed to work together on.
In speeches delivered at the US-hosted Earth Day Summit on Thursday, US President Joe Biden said his country was not the only major polluter and that the “world’s largest economies” had to step up. But his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping said nations had to be credible instead of constantly changing their climate policies and they had to help developing countries to tackle the crisis.
Chinese officials further said climate change should not be used as a geopolitical card to extend influence and that the big nations had still failed to provide sufficient help to poor countries. Those differences between the two sides have led to questions about how far the two nations can go together on climate change.
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“The desire for developed countries to contribute more has been China’s consistent position, not one that China decided on now. Of course, because the atmosphere between China and the US is not good right now, particularly as the US domestically is preparing a Strategic Competition Act on China, this has added a lot of uncertainty to future climate cooperation between the two,” said Wei Zongyou, a professor at Fudan’s Centre of American Studies.
In a bid to show the US as eager to cement its climate leadership role, Biden told the 40 leaders from six continents that by 2030 the US would halve greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels, along with other measures that might affect new jobs, technologies and industries.
But he said the US represented less than 15 per cent of the world’s emissions, and other nations had to take part. Biden did not name China, which was responsible for 28 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
“No nation can solve this crisis on our own, as I know you all fully understand. All of us, all of us – and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies – we have to step up,” he said.
Xi did not offer new concrete pledges, saying China would strictly control and limit coal-fired power plants over the next five years.
He did not name the US in his speech, but added that climate policies should be consistent – a remark seen as hitting out at the previous Trump administration’s move to pull out of the Paris climate agreement.
“In this process, we must join hands, not point fingers at each other; we must maintain continuity, not reverse course easily; and we must honour commitments, not go back on promises,” he said.
He said there should be different responsibilities between nations and more help given to developing nations.
“Developed countries need to increase climate ambition and action. At the same time, they need to make concrete efforts to help developing countries strengthen the capacity and resilience against climate change, support them in financing, technology, and capacity building and refrain from creating green trade barriers, to help developing countries accelerate the transition to green and low-carbon development,” he said.
Chinese officials defended Xi’s lack of concrete pledges at a press conference after the summit in which they said climate change should not be used as a “geopolitical tool”.
“We are at a different development stage than the US and Europe,” said Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change. He said the 30 years that China needed to achieve carbon neutrality was already shorter than the 40-60 years that the US and European nations needed.
China was committed to its climate goals despite facing “immense difficulties” in restructuring its economy, he added.
Xie said a goal made in 2009 for rich countries to deliver US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations cope with climate change had not been realised.
In an apparent jab at the US, Ma Zhaoxu, vice-minister of foreign affairs, said at the same press conference that Xi’s attendance had shown China’s leadership and commitment on climate change.
“China is never engaged in geopolitical efforts and has no interest in playing the climate card. Climate change should not be used as a chip for geopolitical struggle or an excuse to attack others, or to erect trade barriers,” he said.
Xie said Beijing and Washington had resumed dialogue on climate, including multiple rounds of video conferences between him and US special presidential envoy on climate John Kerry since February, and that a joint working group on climate change might be set up in the near future.
Xie added that China and the US agreed to unveil their respective plans on achieving carbon neutrality before the Cop26 Glasgow summit in November.
Ren Xiao, director of the Centre for Chinese Foreign Policy at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said divisions between China and the US – the world’s two largest emitters – on issues including climate hurt their capacity for cooperation against climate change.
“The Chinese side’s policies have been more consistent but the US has had a greater back-and-forth in their reversals, so now it depends more on whether the US has the willpower and will take actual actions,” he said.
Ren said that while China did not raise new climate promises, it had made prior commitments.
“Right now the problem is that the US is not doing enough,” he said. “China’s existing climate goals are not low and it will be good if China can complete those.”
Su Wei, deputy secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, said China was working on a plan to reach peak carbon use in 2030 that included restructuring the coal and petrochemical industries, electricity, steel, construction, transport and agriculture. But Su said continuing reliance on coal in the coming few years remained “unavoidable” because the country needed coal for stable electricity.
“We need stable supply of electricity and there are no other choices. We are going to need coal in the near future, but we will increase the percentage of renewable energy,” he said
Additional reporting by Mark Magnier
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