Signs of Sino-U.S. Cooperation at COP27, But Climate Pledges Still Fall Short

At the halfway point of the COP27 international climate-change summit, there are encouraging signs that China and the U.S. may put aside geopolitical tensions in order to collectively stave off existential catastrophe for the world. However, both countries are currently falling short of the emission-reduction goals agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Agreement, and small, developing nations most at risk of a warming planet are demanding greater efforts. Caixin summarized China’s engagement with the U.S. at COP27:

China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said he met with his U.S. counterpart John Kerry for unofficial consultations, emphasizing that the door is always open on the Chinese side for a joint effort to promote a climate agenda at the annual global climate meeting held in the Egyptian coastal city Sharm el-Sheikh.

Xie disclosed that he and Kerry communicated in eight e-mails during the suspension of talks between the two countries as they ha[d] kept in contact privately following a friendship of 25 years. Xie also called on the U.S. side to remove obstacles to resuming formal dialogue.

The special representative said China would be willing to contribute to a mechanism for compensating poorer countries for losses and damage caused by climate change. Meanwhile, he urged for more action from developed countries, including fulfilling a $100 billion climate finance pledge and creating a roadmap for doubling adaptation funding. [Source]

Following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, the Chinese government cut off high-level climate talks with the U.S., in an example of Xi Jinping’s resistance to decoupling climate cooperation from geopolitical disputes. The meetings between Kerry and Xie, while not yet a formal discussion, mark an important thaw in the U.S.-China relationship. The two men “came out of retirement to take on their countries’ top climate positions, and have worked together on some of the defining international policy breakthroughs of the last decade,” wrote Max Bearak and Lisa Friedman for The New York Times. Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network, stated, “The U.S. being the biggest historical emitter and China being the biggest emitter now, if they come together and say that we are going to be working in harmony, it is going to send a very positive signal. And we need such a signal because we are in a very bleak scenario.”

Their envoys are one measure of the U.S. and China’s commitment to tackling climate change. China has sent a delegation of more than 50 people, led by Zhao Yingmin, vice-minister of Ecology and Environment. The 16-member American delegation is led by John Kerry, and includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID chief Samantha Power. Notably, President Joe Biden attended the summit, while Xi Jinping did not. However, the two leaders are scheduled to meet face-to-face next Monday during the G20 summit in Indonesia, where they plan to discuss a range of issues, including climate change.

A major item on the COP27 agenda is the creation of a “loss and damage” (L&D) fund to compensate developing countries for the irreversible losses from climate change that disproportionately affect them. While developed countries are the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters, their pledges to this fund have so far been either nonexistent or comprise only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions required. Kerry agreed to discuss the idea of such a fund, but Biden did not make any commitments to it in his speech on Friday. Indigenous protesters also interrupted Biden’s speech to critique his insufficient action and “false solutions to the climate crisis.” The Chinese delegation expressed support for the creation of an L&D fund, but later said China would not contribute to it. Valerie Volcovici and Aidan Lewis from Reuters reported that Pacific Islanders think China should pay its fair share:

Prime Minister [of Antigua and Barbuda] Gaston Browne, speaking on behalf of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) negotiating bloc, told reporters the world’s first- and third-biggest greenhouse gas emitters – though still emerging economies – have a responsibility to pay into a fund.

“We all know that the People’s Republic of China, India – they’re major polluters, and the polluter must pay,” Browne said. “I don’t think that there’s any free pass for any country and I don’t say this with any acrimony.” [Source]

The pressure to take responsibility has also led to a competition to demonstrate which country is doing more to address climate change. In his speech, Biden took a jab at China’s continued financing of overseas coal plants, while promoting U.S. initiatives: “If countries can finance coal in developing countries, there’s no reason why we can’t finance clean energy in developing countries.” Belinda Schäpe, a climate diplomacy researcher on EU–China relations at think tank E3G, wrote optimistically: “[T]he attempt to outcompete each other in their domestic energy transitions, green tech development and financial assistance to the global south could be of significant global benefit.” Phelim Kine from Politico collected a range of opinions on how Sino-U.S. competition may help or hinder climate solutions

“The geopolitical competition can actually be helpful…the U.S. doing more [on climate] can lead China to do more,” argued Alexandra Hackbarth, a China expert at the D.C.-based climate change think tank E3G.

[…] We have “urged [the U.S. and China] to demonstrate what we are used to of leadership from both of them,” Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt’s special representative to the COP27 presidency, told reporters on Friday.

[…] “If each country is just doing their own thing [on climate]…we are basically in a car crash situation,” said [Li Shuo, a Beijing-based policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia]. [Source]

In an interview with Panda Paw Dragon Claw’s TJMa, Maureen Penjueli, a Fiji-based coordinator for the Pacific Network on Globalization, described how Sino-U.S. competition for influence in the region overshadows the fact that Pacific Islanders’ conception of security is closely linked to climate change, and how Sino-U.S. collaboration is crucial

PPDC (Panda Paw Dragon Claw): [H]ow is “security” understood on the ground?

MP (Maureen Penjueli): Since a couple of years ago, the Pacific has been really expanding the definition of security beyond traditional or conventional security: military, policing, and borders… to include “human security”. So the region has been one of the very first to make the climate crisis the most important security issue. The inclusion of environmental concerns in the concept of security is quite unique particularly in this part of the world where climate change is acutely felt. 

There is this ongoing tension of trying to educate people outside the region about what Pacific security is in this expanded framework of definition. A lot of the external partners have to juggle conventional security interests (border control, transnational crime…) with what the Pacific is really confronting, such as the climate emergency. These two narratives are almost competing with each other. When you look at the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s all about conventional security interests.

[…] PPDC: [A]re there opportunities for the US, China, Australia and others to collaborate and jointly deliver development assistance to the region?

MP: […] We’ve been saying for a while that China is an important partner. It is part of the non-alignment movement; we have a long history with China. It’s not in any one’s interest to force an “us or them” scenario because no one wins in that case. So I think the need to create political dialogue spaces is quite important. But when you see how the bilateral cooperations work (China-Pacific, US-Pacific, Australia-Pacific), you can see it’s still hard to try to facilitate dialogue among the development partners in the region. I’m not sure what it will take to have all the development partners at the same table rather than the current model of “divide and rule”, or total capture by one or another. [Source]

While Chinese officials at COP27 say they remain “deeply committed” to their net-zero targets, China has struggled to cap emissions amid heightened concerns over domestic energy security. In order to ensure electricity supply over the past two years, the central government has increased daily output, production capacity, and new approvals of coal plants. The competing priorities of climate and coal risk setting back progress and international collaboration. However, there are signs of hope from below: as Yuan Ye reported for Sixth Tone, a new generation of Chinese climate activists, often veterans of  labor-rights and feminist movements, are pushing the country towards a more inclusive, climate-conscious future

China’s climate movement has also benefited from the country’s shifting political environment. Beijing has become more vocal about climate issues, making high-profile pledges to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. That has prompted more Chinese nonprofits and activists to pivot toward this area, as environmental protection and climate change are now considered “safer” issues to be involved with.

[…] Luo [Ruixue], the plastics waste campaigner [at Guangzhou-based group Plastic Free China], moved into environmental advocacy after the feminist media platform she was working for ceased operations in 2020. After years of struggling to keep the group alive while living on a salary that at times dropped to just 2,000 yuan ($275) per month, the strain on her mental health became too much, she says.

“There was a lot of financial pressure, and we also had to think about our future development,” says Luo.

Another Guangzhou-based feminist tells Sixth Tone that she is trying to break into climate advocacy due to its good career prospects and “intersectionality.” 

“I think climate change is about protecting vulnerable groups,” said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns. “I would still love to do gender rights advocacy, but I guess I would have to do it in a more roundabout way.” [Source]


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