WASHINGTON — Six years ago, an unprecedented level of cooperation between the United States and China laid the groundwork for the Paris climate accord, a milestone in the fight against global warming.
But as final preparations are made for back-to-back international summits this week, that partnership has frayed. Dialogue between the two superpowers has been overshadowed by friction over trade, accusations of human rights violations and security issues — not to mention the domestic political and economic challenges both countries face that make working together more difficult.
Their strained relationship will be on display at the Group of 20 forum for world leaders in Rome, which starts Saturday, and the United Nations conference on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland, which begins the next day. President Joe Biden is planning to attend both in person, while Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to participate virtually.
Some experts and policymakers worry that the tension between them will jeopardize progress on climate change at a time when the catastrophic effects of rising temperatures are becoming clearer than ever. Others observe that Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to act independently of U.S. coordination, and they hope that competition between the two powers could be a positive “race to the top,” as each strives to outperform the other on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s clear, however, is that the dynamic between the U.S. and China has shifted dramatically in the last several years. “We are fundamentally in a very different era,” said Thom Woodroofe, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and former climate diplomat.
Before the Paris summit in 2015, Woodroofe said, negotiations between Washington and Beijing produced a joint announcement that was an “absolute game changer.” It signaled that China was ready to reach a deal for the first time, he said, which had a cascading effect, giving other countries confidence progress could be made.
This time around, Beijing has unrolled a series of climate announcements that appear timed to avoid seeming as if China is making changes because of U.S. pressure. Although diplomats from both countries remain in close touch, the question is whether they can spur the rest of the world to increase its ambitions without a united front of their own.
“There’s no solution to climate without the U.S. and China moving in the same direction,” said Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Right now, neither country is doing enough to help meet the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although China is a leading deployer of solar and wind power and electric vehicles, it’s the world’s top source of greenhouse gases and its biggest coal consumer.
Xi announced last year that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060, but the country doesn’t plan to stop reducing emissions until 2030. He announced only last month that his government would stop financing coal-fired power plants around the world.