Carbon Critical

Mar 24, 2023

Why US-China Rivalry Can Actually Help Fight Climate Change

Climate change is more than just a collective action problem. In some cases, geopolitical competition can even help reduce emissions.

a grpah showing total CO2 emissions by the United States and China since 1990
Attribution CC BY

When Nancy Pelosi, who was then speaker of the United States House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August 2022 despite Chinese sensitivities around an island it considers its own, Beijing struck back. The Chinese foreign ministry announced that it was suspending high-level cooperation with the US in eight different areas, including climate change. This breakdown in cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide might have seemed like a terrible setback for humanity’s efforts to tackle climate change. In truth, however, climate cooperation between these two geopolitical competitors is less important than many have long thought.

A Collective Action Problem or a Conflict over Distribution?

Political analysts have often framed international climate change mitigation as a collective action problem. Nobel Prize winner and economist William Nordhaus argued in a seminal 2015 paper on “climate clubs” that the fundamental reason that countries had not joined an international agreement requiring significant emissions reductions was “free-riding.” This refers to a country’s interest in receiving the benefits of a public good without paying to create it. For example, since the United States benefits from a world with fewer carbon dioxide emissions and thus fewer dangerous heatwaves or droughts but it makes no difference to the atmosphere whether it is the US or China that cuts emissions, the US might decide to avoid taking expensive steps to replace fossil fuels with renewables. Other widely-cited analyses of the politics of climate change mitigation, like Swiss political scientist Thomas Bernauer’s 2013 paper, also frame climate change as first and foremost a collective action problem. 

While this remains a useful lens for understanding climate mitigation, new political science research shows that free-riding is not as decisive an obstacle as many claim. US-based political scientists Michaël Aklin and Matto Mildenberger contend that the collective action theory is “empirically unsubstantiated in many important climate politics cases” and that “governments implement climate policies regardless of what other countries do, and they do so whether a climate treaty dealing with free-riding has been in place or not.” In other words, we have seen climate policymakers as “prisoners of the wrong dilemma”: policy preferences are shaped at least as much by domestic interest groups as by the actions of other major emitters. Political scientists Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green, and Thomas Hale make a similar case, showing that climate politics can be understood as a contest between owners of “climate-forcing” assets like oil rigs and owners of “climate-vulnerable” assets such as coastal property. No nation is a monolith that wholly opposes or supports climate action.

The key point is that the state of cooperation between the US and China does less to determine climate policy than do the desires of key political constituencies within each country, such as the Guangdong industrialists who want to export electric cars, or the Texas executives who see that they can get rich by building wind turbines. Texas generates more renewable electricity than California, and it’s not because local policymakers consider the Paris Agreement sacrosanct.

Chinese Decisions for Chinese Reasons

In order to understand this point, it is helpful to look at some of the areas of climate policy where the US and China have promised to cooperate in previous political statements, such as the Joint Glasgow Declaration from 2021. Whether the issue is cutting methane emissions or keeping promises to deliver climate finance, it is the balance of domestic power that decides whether these high-level pledges are implemented.

As a determinant of Chinese agricultural policy and thus methane emissions, an agreement reached in Glasgow between Chinese special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and his US counterpart John Kerry is much less important than the interests of China’s pork and rice producers and their billions of customers. (The U-turn over the zero-COVID policy demonstrated once again that, even though China is no democracy, its leadership is nevertheless susceptible to domestic political pressure.) And as determinants of US climate finance policy, US-Chinese statements cannot compete with the political self-interest of US members of Congress. In 2022 the US Congress approved just $1 billion, far short of the $11.4 billion that President Joe Biden had promised. Pennsylvania takes priority over Glasgow.

To be sure, a minimum degree of cooperation, i.e., that many countries around the world desire to use low-carbon technologies, is required to empower domestic groups that push for climate action. Only if the rest of the world is interested in buying electric vehicles can US automakers successfully argue that the US state should help them capture a global market and increase US power. Only if the rest of the world is interested in discriminating against highly polluting products can Chinese exporters argue that doubling down on coal will hurt China’s narrow, immediate interests.

Catalytic Competition

It is also illuminating to examine what hasn’t happened when cooperation breaks down. When former US President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that he would withdraw his country from the Paris Agreement, China didn’t scale back its plans to expand clean energy. On the contrary, China kept working on a Five Year Plan that will see it add more wind and solar from 2020-2025 than existed in China in 2020, and vastly more than exists in the US or the EU.  And in 2020, the year that Trump formally withdrew the US from the world’s most important climate accord, Chinese President Xi Jinping took up the mantle of global climate leadership, proclaiming to the UN General Assembly that China would achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060.

Xi’s announcement was an example of how competition can catalyze climate action. Rival superpowers can compete to be seen as leading humanity’s charge against a deadly threat, with a view to increasing political influence. Or they can compete over the resources and markets related to the energy transition, aiming to increase their economic power and energy security and make their citizens and allies more resilient in the face of shock—less exposed to coercion by outside powers.

The largest climate investment in US history, the Inflation Reduction Act, would not have passed Congress were it not for concern that China was outpacing the US. The key vote in the Senate, Joe Manchin, explained his support for this climate change bill by referring to “American energy independence” and his fear of “relying on Chinese President Xi for the critical minerals our economy needs.” As a result of this legislation, the US will massively scale up its production of low carbon power and hydrogen and electric vehicles. Similarly, one motivation for China’s transition to electric vehicles is the need to reduce its reliance on oil imported through the Strait of Malacca, which could be interrupted by the US in the case of a conflict over Taiwan.

Even the negative outcomes of US-China tensions can occasionally deliver climate benefits to the rest of the world. When the US put steep import tariffs on Chinese solar panels and banned solar energy components from China’s Xinjiang region over concerns that they had been produced with forced labor, it contributed to an oversupply of panels and pushed Chinese producers into a price war. Despite not taxing carbon in their own country, US senators are also considering a carbon border tax; one Democratic senator explained that the proposal had some bipartisan support because it China would be a “big loser.” 

The Nitty Gritty of Cooperation

This is not to deny the utility of climate cooperation between opposing geopolitical blocs. It did take a political agreement between the US and China in 2014 to pave the way for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which has certainly helped raise global ambitions to cut emissions and raised the standards for political pledges.

Unfortunately, the recent spike in US-China tensions is also inhibiting some investments in climate mitigation. US policymakers are not only providing extra subsidies for low-carbon technologies made without Chinese inputs, but also seeking to stop Chinese investments in American decarbonization. The Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, has halted efforts to bring a proposed Ford battery plant to Virginia over concerns about its links to Chinese firms and Chinese technology. This is just one in a series of such moves by US Republicans.

It is also possible that the US restrictions on exporting advanced semiconductors to China, ostensibly meant to inhibit the development of Chinese military technology, could slow the development of Chinese technologies that help with climate change mitigation or adaptation. They have already triggered a Chinese response in the form of proposed restrictions on the export of technologies required to produce solar panels, though this will likely spur an (expensive) effort in the West to duplicate Chinese production capabilities. Looking at the question from the other causal direction, so far there is little sign that the urgency of combatting climate change is preventing the escalation of US-Chinese tensions. And a US-China war, the opposite of cooperation, would be highly damaging to the climate and human welfare. 

Where cooperation will be increasingly necessary is in the details of climate policy. So many climate policies require the sharing of accurate information on emissions, compiled using shared methodologies: Without cooperation, it is hard to imagine the EU’s anti-deforestation regulation or carbon border adjustment, or the US-led First Mover’s Coalition (company pledges to buy low carbon goods), having the desired effect. Many low-carbon productions require definitions and standards. Is this hydrogen really “green”? What about this bond? Will this electric car charger from abroad work in our city? These are types of questions that will increasingly concern policymakers.

Where Cooperation Matters

If climate change is primarily a collective action problem, then the appropriate metaphor is from US ecologist Garrett Hardin’s influential 1968 essay “Tragedy of the Commons”: When a pasture belongs to the public, each herder pursues their own self-interest, allowing their sheep to graze as much as possible and eventually destroy the common land. For our purposes, the pasture is the world’s carbon budget. Every self-interested nation will burn as many fossil fuels as it can in an effort to get rich before time is up. This view is partially correct, and certainly captures the dynamics around foregoing fossil fuel production, which doesn’t make anyone directly richer or more powerful. Cooperation would help all herders maintain the common pasture. In the same way, cooperation would also make it easier to tackle climate change.

However, more nuance is required when it comes to adding low-carbon energy. To continue the metaphor, one herder might introduce a new breed of sheep that only eats half as much grass. He will realize that he can make money by selling these sheep to his neighbors.

Coming back to the real world, climate change mitigation is a bit like the effort to protect the ozone layer, which achieved success with the 1987 adoption of Montreal Protocol (and subsequent amendments). This was an instance of cooperative self-restraint between dozens of signatories, including hostile superpowers like the United States and the Soviet Union.

But climate change is also a bit like the race to put a man on the moon, where the Americans and Soviets competed, with the full force of their governments and scientific-industrial bases, to achieve something for the sake of their own glory and power.

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s climate columnist and acting co-director of the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.

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