5 ways to boost US–China diplomacy for people and the planet

by Daniel Jasper
A graphic showing shaking hands from the United States and China

Recently, the new United States and Chinese climate envoys, John Podesta and Liu Zhenmin, met for the first time. The meeting came amid expectations that the Biden administration would increase tariffs on Chinese goods such as EVs, solar equipment, batteries, and critical minerals. While the meeting was generally positive and outlined areas of cooperation, the recent increases in trade and military tensions remind us how vital it is that these two countries find ways to work together. 

Climate has become one of the few politically palatable ways for the United States and China to cooperate. The United States public also agrees with this type of diplomacy. According to a recent poll conducted by the American Friends Service Committee and Harris Poll, 62% of the United States public believes the Biden administration should engage in dialogue as much as possible on issues like climate change to reduce tensions. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world in many ways depends on U.S.-China climate cooperation.

Given that these two countries emit nearly 45% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, their joint efforts are paramount for climate action. After all, had it not been for bilateral U.S.-China negotiations, China would not have signed on to the Paris Agreement, and climate cooperation would likely not exist as we know it today.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world in many ways depends on U.S.-China climate cooperation. Relations between the two countries have generally deteriorated over the last decade, raising concerns over military action. Like climate change, a conflict between the world’s superpowers would pose an existential risk. Climate cooperation can, therefore, be a bridge to coalesce around shared interests, create more political space to broach other topics, and help alleviate military and geopolitical tensions.

Here are five ways the United States and China can maximize climate cooperation to address climate change and build a healthier, more sustainable planet for all.

1. Stop ignoring the 1,500-Ib cow in the room

Recent talks have included some specific areas for cooperation; however, the discussions often tip-toe around key sectors – most notably agriculture and livestock. Diplomats must begin engaging on these issues as they are among the most urgently needed climate solutions.

Climate envoys have focused their talks on areas such as methane and non-CO2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, the energy transition, resource efficiency, deforestation, subnational sustainability efforts, and support for multilateral forums like COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, later this year. 

In particular, the focus on reducing non-CO2 GHGs – gases like methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) – and deforestation is encouraging as these “emergency brake” solutions are necessary to avert the worst of climate change.

Credit: Getty Images / Unsplash

Methane and N2O are potent GHGs that are around 80 and 300 times more warming than CO2, respectively, in the near term. Methane alone is responsible for about 30% of the warming we are experiencing today, and China and the United States are the two largest methane polluters in the world. Bilateral talks have mostly focused on addressing these emissions in the energy sector through reducing methane leaks from natural gas production and better monitoring. But it’s a different sector that is most responsible for such pollution.

Livestock and industrial agricultural practices are the primary drivers of methane and N2O emissions as well as deforestation. The science is clear that we must overhaul our food systems – from production to consumption – to reduce these emissions.

Global methane emissions by sector
Global nitrous oxide emissions by sector

These are sensitive topics for both countries. Livestock and meat consumption are deeply embedded in the cultural, political, and financial systems of the United States and China. 

By ignoring them, however, negotiators risk focusing on the margins of climate action, investing time and resources on less impactful but more politically acceptable tweaks around the edges of a system that is hurtling the world toward further food insecurity and climate disasters.

Diplomats cannot continue to ignore the heart of the matter; they must see issues like transforming our food systems as enormous opportunities for climate change, global food security, and bilateral ties.

2. Look for intersectional solutions

Climate solutions often provide additional benefits to human and social well-being. Yet solutions that lie at the intersection of climate and human well-being are often only emphasized in conversations about low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). U.S. and Chinese diplomats must identify and address these overlapping issues within their own purviews, as they are essential to improving the overall bilateral relationship. 

There are many flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, and many are impacted by or directly related to environmental concerns. For example, fishing fleets in the South China Sea have been a long-standing flashpoint between China, its neighbors, and the United States. As near-shore fish stocks have been depleted, fishing vessels have moved into deeper offshore waters, often to locations with unclear territorial claims or that serve as a reason to challenge current territorial claims.

...intersectional solutions offer negotiators an important opportunity to feed multiple birds with one seed.

At the same time, fisheries have a big impact on climate change and marine ecosystems. Therefore, improving how fisheries are managed can protect global biodiversity, save more than a billion tons of GHG emissions over a thirty-year period, and reduce the risk of conflict. 

By working together, the U.S. and Chinese diplomats can turn fisheries from a flashpoint to a foothold for collaboration, reducing geopolitical tensions while simultaneously stabilizing the climate. These types of intersectional solutions offer negotiators an important opportunity to feed multiple birds with one seed. Identifying overlapping areas of concern should be a top priority.

3. Deliver on financing

There’s no getting around the fact that much of climate action boils down to money – and 2024 is the year of climate finance. 

World leaders are currently working to develop a new climate finance goal, which will be delivered at COP29 in November. What world leaders agree to will be critical for the next decade, but how they follow through on those commitments is just as important. In 2009, rich countries promised to deliver US$100 billion in annual climate finance to LMICs. However, wealthy nations largely failed to deliver, and, as a result, resentment among LMICs has increased in recent years. 

Entangled within these conversations on climate finance is an ongoing quarrel over China’s contributions and status as a developing country. Many in Washington have contended that China should not be categorized as a developing country and have pressured China to provide more financing. However, the data is clear: everyone, including and especially the United States, is failing on climate finance.

The United States has just 4% of the world’s population but is responsible for 20% of historical emissions, while China has 17% of the world’s population and is responsible for 11% of historical emissions. In 2022, the United States emitted about 17.9 metric tons of GHGs per person, whereas China emitted about 10.95 metric tons per person. This means that the United States has had – and continues to have – a massively disproportionate impact on climate change and is in no position to criticize the contributions of others until it provides its fair share of climate finance. 

Comparing financial contributions can be difficult due to incomplete data and changing political leadership. Still, the 2017 climate finance data provided by the Overseas Development Institute offers a glimpse of each country’s annual capital flows. That year, the United States provided an estimated US$6.6 billion, making it the fourth-largest provider, while China gave US$2 billion, making it the seventh-largest.

Currently, the world’s total annual amount of climate finance is around US$1.2 trillion – just one percent of global GDP. This is far short of what’s required. The Climate Policy Initiative estimates that the need for annual climate funding will steadily increase from US$8 to US$9 trillion over the next six years – and then costs will rise to about US$10 trillion annually in 2030. The world is falling further and further behind in its climate finance goals, and the United States and China are two of the most important leaders in this space. 

Diplomats must begin cooperating to adjust our financial systems so that they can rapidly deploy capital for climate solutions and to prepare for and recover from climate disasters  – without putting LMICs further into debt. Fortunately, this type of cooperation isn’t totally unprecedented; U.S. and Chinese officials worked together in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to help stabilize the world economy. Adjusting the global financial system to account for climate change is a much larger task, and officials don’t have much time. That’s why it is essential that diplomats immediately begin these discussions and establish processes for ensuring progress. Only by laying a strong foundation today can both countries – and the world – prepare for the difficult conversations and times that lay ahead. 

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama during the Paris Climate Agreement

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping and United States President Barack Obama at a climate pact ratification ceremony.

Credit: Eskinder / United Nations

4. Set clear climate goals

During the Obama administration, the United States and China held extensive dialogues on a wide range of issues, from climate change to nuclear power to space debris. Near the end of Obama’s term, criticisms arose that the dialogues had failed to produce much substance. As a co-lead of the first independent and exhaustive analysis of the dialogues, I can say with certainty that the engagements were successful in many (though certainly not all) ways, such as increasing climate cooperation, recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, and addressing global health issues. 

One lesson I learned through the analysis was that the dialogues hadn’t actually failed. Rather, the critics were evaluating them based on invented criteria rather than the objectives that negotiators had jointly agreed upon.

Setting clear, quantifiable climate goals – and properly socializing them among experts and the public – would add transparency and accountability while hedging against unfounded criticisms of the engagements. 

5. Create domestic political support

Hostile rhetoric has been on the rise in Washington and Beijing in recent years, limiting the range of political cooperation. Given the stakes of these talks, increasingly aggressive rhetoric (sometimes for the sake of domestic politics) is a dangerous risk, as it limits the space for international cooperation on climate change and increases the potential for conflict. 

Crimes against Asian Americans have increased in recent years, and the political rhetoric around China has no doubt played a role; so, any domestic political gains are overshadowed by serious costs borne by Asian Americans. Further, as stated above, the United States public supports dialogue with China on issues like climate change to avoid military confrontation, especially when it’s framed that way in public communications. 

United States and Chinese officials must give climate negotiations more full-throated support and communicate to their domestic audiences – including the public, media, experts, academics, and other officials – the importance of climate and bilateral cooperation. Normalizing U.S.-China engagement through regular and constructive public messaging would give negotiators “political cover” to explore more meaningful and long-term collaboration. More genuine attempts to build domestic support for bilateral cooperation could also reduce the risk that future officeholders backslide.

Dan Jasper is a policy advisor at Project Drawdown with a multidisciplinary background in public policy at the intersection of climate change and poverty alleviation.

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