May 13, 2024 - Energy & Environment

The changing climate of U.S.-China relations

A stacked area chart showing annual global fossil CO2 emissions. Emissions have been steadily rising since 1959, hitting an estimated 36.3 gigatons in 2023. The U.S. has maintained emissions of around 4 to 5 gigatons a year since the 1970s. China’s annual emissions have grown from under 1 gigaton in the 1960s to 11 gigatons in 2023.
Data: Global Carbon Project; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

President Biden is trying to thread a geopolitical needle: working with China on climate while thwarting imports of cheap Chinese electric vehicles, and other low-carbon tech.

Why it matters: The two nations are the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters, accounting for roughly 45% of energy-related carbon dioxide.

  • And beyond CO2, both countries are big sources of other planet-warming gases like methane.
  • But the White House is working to expand U.S. production of "clean" energy equipment — an area China often dominates.

State of play: Biden officials plan to quadruple tariffs on Chinese EVs to 100% to prevent its low-cost vehicles from starting to enter U.S. markets, according to a source familiar with the upcoming announcement, and published reports.

  • Other trade announcements coming tomorrow are expected to include new tariffs on solar cells, batteries and critical minerals, among other goods.
  • However, the source expects some tariff exclusions on equipment used in solar panel manufacturing.

Catch up quick: The administration previously announced plans to boost steel and aluminum tariffs, as Biden and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump court votes with tougher China policies.

  • The White House also says weaving climate into trade policy will help U.S. industries.

The intrigue: Word of the energy-related tariffs surfaced around the time John Podesta, the top U.S. climate diplomat, wrapped up talks in Washington with Chinese counterpart Liu Zhenmin late last week.

  • State Department officials said the sessions yielded steps forward. But it's pretty incremental.
  • For instance, the nations plan to "intensify technical and policy exchanges" on cutting coal use and boosting renewables.

Meanwhile, China "welcomed" the COP28 deal's call for countries to submit new pledges for 2035 that are economy-wide, cover all greenhouse gases, and are "aligned" with 1.5°C goals.

  • While China signed off on text that already urges these pledges, a State official told reporters that "welcomed" will be viewed in climate circles as going further.

What we're watching: The specifics of this week's trade moves — and China's response.

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