Mar 22, 2021 - World

The fraught U.S.-China climate relationship

Illustration of a China map and star overlaying a map of the U.S.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The last 72 hours highlighted hurdles and opportunities for U.S.-China cooperation on climate at a time of very deep divisions over human rights, cybersecurity and more.

Driving the news: Chinese state media, in a weekend readout of high-level U.S.-China talks in Alaska on Thursday and Friday, said one outcome of the multitopic meeting will be a "joint working group" on climate.

  • But yesterday a State Department spokesman told Axios' Fadel Allassan: "The two sides discussed the climate crisis but did not form a formal working group."

Why it matters: China is by far the world's largest carbon emitter and the U.S. is the second-largest.

  • The planet's fate doesn't rest on whether there's indeed a "formal" new working group. But the wider trajectory of U.S.-China cooperation — or division — is very important for reining in emissions.

The big picture: Right now, that relationship is very strained, as revealed by the tense talks in Alaska last week.

  • "We certainly know and knew going in that there are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters afterward, citing areas like China's abuses of Muslims in Xinjiang.
  • But he also cited areas where "interests intersect" — including climate. And more broadly, there are other modest signs of collaboration thus far. The U.S. and China are co-chairing a reconstituted G20 Sustainable Finance Study Group.
  • And John Kerry, President Biden's special climate envoy, has long known Xie Zhenhua, who is back for another stint as China's top climate diplomat.

What's next: A Wall Street Journal piece this morning looks at a multination meeting on climate tomorrow that China will lead and will include Kerry and Xie.

  • "Given the tensions, the Kerry-Xie interaction marks a test of the Biden administration’s China strategy, which looks to carve out cooperation on issues like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic while the two powers compete for global influence and the control of critical technologies," it reports.

A little further out, President Biden is hosting a high-level global climate summit on April 22. It will offer another moment to take the pulse of the U.S.-China rapport.

  • Li Shuo, a Greenpeace expert on China, said via Twitter that while climate was among the few areas of "convergence" in Alaska, the talks "certainly made an early breakthrough more difficult."
  • "Beijing needs to make tough decisions now on what to bring to the April 22nd climate summit," he said.

The intrigue: One question is when China will fill in policy blanks on its 2020 vow to become carbon neutral by 2060 — and whether it will pledge tougher near-term efforts beyond what's already been announced.

  • Alden Meyer, a senior associate with the climate think tank E3G, tells me he's watching to see what China does in the run-up to critical UN climate talks in Scotland late this year.
  • But Meyer said U.S. officials are "not really holding their breath" for any big announcements from China at Biden's summit next month.
Go deeper