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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Well that, as Ron Burgundy would say, escalated quickly. China's foreign ministry is accusing the Trump administration of "major retrogression" on climate and being an environmental "troublemaker."

Why it matters: China's unusual statement Monday widens the rupture between the world's largest carbon emitters as global climate efforts are flagging and the pandemic's effect on emissions is too small to be consequential in the long term.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: This is a pretty smart line of attack for Beijing, which seems to have determined that a world increasingly wary of China would still welcome its climate leadership, particularly given the U.S. abandonment of this issue under President Trump.

Driving the news: The Chinese statement knocks the U.S. for being the largest cumulative greenhouse gas source in history.

  • That's true, though China surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest annual polluter roughly 15 years ago and the gap has only widened.
  • China attacks Trump's decision to abandon the Paris Agreement and the administration's moves to roll back Obama-era emissions rules.
  • But it goes far beyond climate and hits Trump's record on biodiversity and more.

Catch up fast: China's accusations follow the State Department's Sept. 25 statement attacking China over its massive emissions growth this century, its record on marine debris and logging, and other areas.

  • The State's strongly worded missive, in turn, had come three days after China's surprise announcement that it would aim for "carbon neutrality" by 2060 and a CO2 emissions peak before 2030.

Between the lines: It's hard to untether the flare-up from the election.

  • Climate diplomacy expert Andrew Light said China is looking to be seen as a leader even in a world where the U.S. resumes taking big steps.
  • "It looks to me like they are trying to get ahead of a possible Biden win and reversal of Trump’s positions on domestic and international climate and environment," said Light, a senior climate aide in former President Obama's State Department.

What we're watching: The upcoming election. Joe Biden has vowed a mix of new international climate policies beyond simply rejoining the Paris deal. When it comes to China specifically, his proposals include...

  • Ramping up pressure on China to make its global Belt and Road Initiative on infrastructure more climate-friendly.
  • Encouraging future U.S.-China agreements on CO2, but making them "contingent on China eliminating unjustified export subsidies for coal and other high-emissions technologies."

The other side: A State Department spokesperson, in a statement responding to China's new attack, said the U.S. has "long recognized China's abysmal environmental record and called on China to improve in various international fora."

  • "We continue to call on China to not just make empty promises and release statements but actually invest in improving the quality of its own air, water, and soil."

Go deeper

UN poll: Most see climate change as global emergency during pandemic

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Photo: Jonathan Nacksrtrand/AFP via Getty Images

64% of people from around the world say climate change is a global emergency, a UN poll published Wednesday finds.

Why it matters: It's the biggest global survey on climate change ever conducted, with some 1.2 million participants from 50 countries — including the U.S., where 65% of those surveyed view climate change as an emergency.

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Former Google CEO and others call for U.S.-China tech "bifurcation"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new set of proposals by a group of influential D.C. insiders and tech industry practitioners calling for a degree of "bifurcation" in the U.S. and Chinese tech sectors is circulating in the Biden administration. Axios has obtained a copy.

Why it matters: The idea of "decoupling" certain sectors of the U.S. and Chinese economies felt radical three years ago, when Trump's trade war brought the term into common parlance. But now the strategy has growing bipartisan and even industry support.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden to sign major climate orders, setting up clash with oil industry

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden will sign new executive actions today that provide the clearest signs yet of his climate plans — elevating the issue to a national security priority and kicking off an intense battle with the oil industry.

Driving the news: One move will freeze issuance of new oil-and-gas leases on public lands and waters "to the extent possible," per a White House summary.