August 11, 2022

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Climate tensions between America and China lead to a new conflict

There is a lack of trust between China and the US, both of which are convinced that rivals will not keep their promises on emissions. Eck Fryman analysis

Climate tensions between America and China are triggering a new geopolitical conflict – not a cold war, but a hot war.

“The Chinese delegation has ‘ spoiled’ the negotiations,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd shouted, after another day of inaction. It was a Friday afternoon in December 2009, and the COP 15 climate conference was collapsing. US President Barack Obama met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders in a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement.They were sitting side by side on uncomfortable chairs.The table was filled with plants, half-empty coffee cups, mixed newspapers, yellow markers, and soft mozzarella sandwiches. “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was absent and sent his subordinate, He Yafei, to sit in front of Obama but did not authorize him to negotiate. Sleeping world leaders were humiliated. Many of them impatient and left.” The global climate competition between China and the US The author compares with what would have happened eight years later in the Rose Garden of the White House: Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, showed even greater contempt for climate diplomacy by declaring Withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreements.


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For many years, Fryman argues, the prevailing narrative has described climate change as a crisis that the international community must resolve—and it can only be resolved if world leaders find the political will to cooperate and share the cost. Indeed, many climate experts and negotiators acknowledged that the situation is more complex. For three decades, the splendor of the United Nations climate conferences has masked a fiercely competitive geopolitical war. Today, there is a growing rivalry between China and the United States that has extended from the economic branch to a broader competition for global supremacy. As tensions rise, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a solution to the structural causes of climate inaction.”
The main problem is that there is currently no bilateral cooperation between China and the United States, the world’s top two emitters. There is no chance of a global climate agreement without their support. There is a huge lack of trust between the two countries: both are convinced that their rival is unwilling to deliver on decarbonization promises. Neither America nor China wants to adopt policies that can slow their economic growth, and give the opponent a competitive advantage. One of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that there can be no global climate agreement until China makes more ambitious promises. On the contrary, Chinese negotiators argue that the responsibility lies with the advanced economies, chiefly the United States.

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Climate diplomacy was born thirty years ago with the Rio Agreement, which created a principle that in the meantime has become very controversial: the so-called “common but differentiated responsibilities”. At that time, there was a huge economic gap between the West – which agreed to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change – and the developing countries, whose priorities were social development and the fight against poverty. But in the past 30 years, the world has changed: China and India are today the first and third countries to contribute to global pollution, while China emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. However, Beijing insists it has no moral or legal obligation to cut emissions. Obama tried in every way to get the Chinese government to change its mind, but his efforts yielded no immediate result, as evidenced by the black smoke at the Copenhagen summit.

In the winter of 2013, Beijing recorded record levels of smog which fueled protests and forced the Chinese government to act. Obama saw an opening and after months of negotiations persuaded Beijing to sign a joint declaration on climate. For the first time, China promised to achieve peak emissions and extract twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. This promise required huge investment given the size of the Chinese economy and the estimated growth rate. Then came the Paris Agreement, a “diplomatic victory”, but it is only a starting point for solving the problem of climate change.

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The election of Trump in 2016 changed everything. In July 2017, the president withdrew from the Paris Accords using protecting the US economy from unfair competition from China as a justification. Announcing the US withdrawal, Trump said, “China can increase emissions for a large number of years – thirteen years.” Countries “.

It is not clear what the underlying problem is – whether Trump doubts the existence of climate change, whether he views the issue from a geopolitical perspective, or whether he is simply not interested. The truth is that, as Freeman explains, during his years in the White House, climate cooperation between America and China has been put on hold.

And finally we come to Biden, who has re-entered the Paris Accords and put climate diplomacy back into the hands of Obama-era negotiators, who have more ambitious goals than Paris. Domestic political factors are hampering the president’s projects: many of his goals are futile without the massive investments in clean energy that the “Building Back Better” program foresaw, which is still stuck in the Senate. Moreover, foreign negotiators see a dangerous trend in Washington: Democratic administrations are negotiating climate deals, and their Republican successors are withdrawing. This means a loss of confidence in Beijing, and beyond, in America.

Freeman’s core thesis is that the Chinese are using climate change as a geopolitical tool: They promise action to halt global warming in exchange for concessions on other fronts. On the contrary, Washington wants to decipher this issue from anything else, but China is not ready to accept this principle. America wants climate change cooperation to be an oasis in the relationship. However, if the oasis is surrounded by deserts, sooner or later the oasis will also transform.”

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Thus, it is time for realpolitik in both Washington and Beijing: Both countries have accepted that they are likely to exceed the 1.5-degree limit set by the Paris Accords. Moreover, the priorities of both governments have changed, to the point that they are now paying more attention to how they deal with global warming. Just as geopolitics has exacerbated the climate crisis, the climate crisis has accelerated geopolitical competition, from the Arctic to the South Pacific. A new type of geopolitical competition is emerging – not a cold war, but a warm war. Unrestricted warfare would not be a disaster, but more so if it produced innovation and accelerated the adoption of low-emission technologies. But this brings with it serious and unexpected risks. A superpower that adapts faster to climate change could gain a strategic advantage over its competition. There are few international standards, conventions, and institutions to manage this competition and prevent geopolitical competition from descending into direct confrontation. “We must work to get to an agreement on emissions, which are the root cause of climate change,” says Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence. But we have to be realistic about what we should do if that doesn’t happen. The United States should seriously consider Plan B. It means adaptation.”