Now that the United States is poised to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the Biden-Harris administration should use all the tools in its diplomatic toolkit to drive climate action around the world. It will be particularly critical for the United States to support and mobilize greater climate action with China. As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China has an outsized impact on America’s core interest in climate stability.

Substantive engagement with China, through both bilateral and multilateral channels, is imperative for the world to reduce global carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. The joint announcement of climate targets by the U.S. and China in 2014 helped spur commitments from other nations in advance of the Paris Agreement. Re-engagement with China on this existential challenge may also present opportunities for the undoubtedly difficult process of recalibrating the overall U.S.-China relationship during a time of geopolitical and economic tensions and technological competition.

The U.S. interest in climate stability should initially be pursued through bilateral engagement within a broader strategic reset of the relationship, as well as through robust multilateral engagement. This includes pressing or resuscitating climate action in key bilateral and multilateral fora including the G7, G20, Paris Agreement, Montreal Protocol, and the U.S.-led Major Economies Forum. The next administration should be prepared to work with the E.U. and other allies to create diplomatic and economic incentives for China to move forward on an ambitious climate agenda. 

The next administration can seek to:

Strengthen the ambition of China’s 2030 Paris Agreement targets.

China’s recent pledge of climate neutrality by 2060 could reduce global temperature by about 0.2 to 0.3°C by the end of the century—estimated to be the single largest reduction commitment to date. The announcement was strategically timed before the US election and may even be leading other countries to follow suit. However this move towards international climate leadership seems to be in direct conflict with Beijing’s continued promotion of fossil fuel projects at home and abroad. Despite calls for a green recovery, China’s post-outbreak stimulus focuses primarily on promoting high-carbon energy and infrastructure projects. China has an estimated 249.6 gigawatts of coal power capacity under construction or in the planning stages—more than the entire coal capacity of the United States (246.2 GW) or India (229 GW).

The U.S. will arguably need to play catch-up on domestic climate ambition as well as re-establish international credibility. A clear and necessary step to this end will be for the U.S. to lead by example with more ambitious climate targets and an enhanced NDC. This will enable the U.S. to engage more deeply with China to understand the elements of ambition in China’s 2030 nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, in line with its stated 2060 target. These discussions would take place well before the UK-hosted 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in November 2021. 

Undertake parallel initiatives that advance U.S. interests.

Biden’s July 2020 climate plan calls for a “Clean Energy Revolution” legislative package to make “the largest investment in history in American innovation”—including research and innovation to unlock and deploy new zero-carbon technologies for the future, create stable, well- paying jobs across the U.S., and make zero- carbon technologies the most cost-effective and scalable way to meet our country’s energy needs.

Cooperation on climate and energy has long been part of the U.S.-China relationship, throughout both Republican and Democratic administrations. U.S. officials spent years designing a suite of bilateral clean energy technology partnerships that were painstakingly negotiated and executed to not only leverage the best minds in the world, but also to protect intellectual property and build cross-border trust.

Resetting U.S.-China engagement on climate change is in the U.S. interest and will require incremental confidence-building measures at the outset. It will also require careful work and creative thinking about bold initiatives that can generate excitement and interest. This could include efforts to exchange information on how to create employment opportunities related to our respective energy transitions, engage on Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) policies, demonstrate ambitious power sector transformations, adopt gas and coal phase-out schedules, and support U.S.-China subnational efforts by states/provinces and cities.

As both nations recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, they can build ambition on climate, clean energy, and sustainable infrastructure investment in their respective green stimulus measures. An affirmative decision by the world’s two largest economies to pursue recovery strategies centered on rapid regrowth of climate- and health-friendly economies could serve as a positive step in the early stages of the relationship and demonstrate a viable sustainable recovery path for other countries.

Green overseas investments including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China is still financing coal-fired plants around the world, increasingly becoming the lender of last resort as other countries and multilateral banks are restricting overseas coal investments. Studies have found that the majority of China’s overseas energy investment is going to finance coal plants, and these plants tend to use less efficient technology than the plants they are building at home.

The next administration can engage China in early dialogues about establishing greener requirements for investment, including for the BRI—by drastically reducing or eliminating coal finance and construction as well as enhancing opportunities for clean energy under BRI. Both governments, which claim to support increased sustainable energy development in developing country markets, could commit to increase and harmonize their respective capacity-building programs and overseas sustainable investment criteria, in areas such as integrated energy planning, power sector reform, distributed generation, procurement, transparency, and standards to support low-carbon growth in developing countries. At the same time, the U.S. should work with other countries to encourage China to implement its stated objective to green the BRI, and to offer those countries that are considering BRI-funded high- carbon projects better options for green and low-carbon alternatives.

Overall, it is clear that the U.S.-China relationship is currently under great pressure. While tensions between these two global powers will likely remain, cooperation on climate and clean energy remains one of the most promising areas for rebuilding trust, and could greatly advance global goals for climate and the Sustainable Development Goals.

This post summarizes key recommendations found in the report, An International Climate Agenda for the Next U.S. Administration. The more detailed memo on China can be found here.