Apr 6, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Biden's climate balancing act with China

Data: Global Carbon Project; Chart: Axios Visuals

Partner? Rival? When it comes to China and climate policy, the White House answer to both questions seems to be yes.

Driving the news: The last few days underscore the delicate role that China is playing in White House climate efforts.

John Kerry, President Biden's special climate envoy, told CNBC that acting on climate is a "huge economic opportunity" for people worldwide and added:

  • "This is not about China, this is not a counter to China. This is about China, the United States, India, Russia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Australia, a bunch of countries that are emitting a pretty sizable amount, the United States and China the most."
  • And via Reuters, Kerry also told reporters on the same weekend visit with officials in Abu Dhabi that the U.S. is hopeful about working with China on climate despite major tensions on several other topics.

Yes, but: Competition with China is a not-subtle part of the White House's domestic sales pitch for its $2 trillion-plus economic plan that's heavy on clean energy infrastructure, manufacturing and R&D.

  • The White House summary of the plan calls it a way to "create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China." (Emphasis added.)
  • The proposal last week also calls the investments a way to meet the climate crisis and the "ambitions of an autocratic China."

Why it matters: Check out the chart above via the Global Carbon Project, a research consortium. Steeply cutting global emissions is hopeless without major cuts from the U.S. and China, which together comprise over 40% of worldwide CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

  • So that means diplomatic spadework as the administration joins others in pressing China to transform its ambitions (including carbon neutrality by 2060) into more concrete steps.
  • But it also means enacting new domestic policies, and for the White House, part of that push is talking up the country's ability to compete in growing clean energy tech markets.
Shares of historical fossil CO2 emissions
Data: Global Carbon Project; Chart: Axios Visuals

One thing that's tricky about climate diplomacy is balancing responsibility for today's emissions levels against historical CO2 output.

The big picture: The graphic above, also via Global Carbon Project data, puts China's rise into the world's largest emitter by far into perspective.

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