Can the US and China revive their cooperation on climate change?

With US president-elect Joe Biden’s victory being confirmed on Wednesday, one major question comes to the fore: Will US-China relations continue to deteriorate or can the world’s two largest economies figure out a way to work together in some way?

Climate change policy may be the answer.

SOURCE:  South China Morning Post

Biden has promised to bring the US back into the Paris Agreement on combating climate change after Donald Trump withdrew the US as one of his first actions as president. Biden has named a strong environmental team to back up that promise, with John Kerry, the former US secretary of state and presidential candidate, set to be his top climate envoy, someone the Chinese will take seriously.

This autumn, Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to end all carbon emissions by 2060 and cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 65 per cent by 2030, a mammoth task for the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter. There remain major doubts about China reaching these goals, given that the country is still building coal-fired power plants. Reaching the goal is estimated to cost US$15 trillion.

There is precedent for the US and China to cooperate on this issue. In 2014, under the Obama administration and while Kerry was secretary of state, the two countries reached an historic agreement to gradually scale back pollution. The deal was signed ahead of the Paris Agreement and made the global climate deal possible.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has already called on Biden to “restart dialogue” on a range of issues, particularly climate change.

China has a long way to go to meet its extremely ambitious target of cutting carbon emissions to zero by 2060 and getting more than halfway there by 2030. China must cut its reliance on fossil fuels to 25 per cent by 2050 from 85 per cent now. Some 90 per cent of Chinese industry will have to be retrofitted with carbon capture technologies, and all coal-fired power plants without such technology will have to be shut within 25 years to meet the zero emissions goal.

The country is participating in the global race to harness nuclear fusion to meet the energy needs without harmful emissions. China is also pushing ahead with development of hydrogen fuel cells for the nation’s large and growing vehicle fleet. Domestic companies need incentives and reforms to meet the government’s goal, given that their climate risk disclosures meet less than half international minimum standards.

To jump start the pollution reduction challenge, Beijing is opening its domestic energy sector to foreign investments to fund climate-saving technologies.

China is banking on market pricing of carbon emissions through a national emissions quota trading system to prompt companies to make necessary changes. In addition, the People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank, is pushing financial institutions to lend more for environmentally-friendly projects while supporting the increase in companies’ “green bonds“.

But in what may become a larger theme under the Biden administration, Chinese human rights issues are also affecting American’s ability to move toward renewable energy, particularly wind power, given that many of the wind turbines are made in Xinjiang province, amid allegations of forced labour there.

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