US and China's healthier rivalry

US and China's healthier rivalry

'This is the decade that we must make decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis," said US President Joe Biden on Thursday 22 April at the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate held by the White House.

With an attendance of 40 world leaders, President Biden pledged that the US would cut carbon emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by the year 2030 -- a rate which doubles the country's prior commitment under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The intention of this summit is for the US to rejoin the Paris Accord following the departure of then-President Donald Trump, whose personal stance on climate change was very much associated with labelling it "a hoax", and whose tenure reversed more than 100 environmental regulations.

During the US' absence, it was China that assumed the role as leader of climate efforts, boasting a pledge of carbon neutrality by 2060 -- a mightily ambitious target from the world's number one polluter.

The imminent return of the US to this arena has made the climate agenda another front in the rivalry between the two biggest economies, although this is healthier competition that may benefit the planet.

Interestingly, aside from global leadership ambitions, the US and China have completely different underlying motivations for their focus on climate, each equally with their own strengthens and drawbacks.

For the US, firstly, climate action is about morals and responsibilities, a theme that is consistent with President Biden's wider foreign policy agenda. Accompanying the "America is Back" motto, Mr Biden is seeking to rebuild the shattered multilateral order and focus on democracy and human rights, speaking out on the Xinjiang genocide, the Myanmar coup, as well as on Hong Kong. This emphasis on morals and responsibilities, with climate action as an integral component, has been well received by the international community, and he must continue it.

Secondly, climate action is about politics. The Democratic Party that Mr Biden first represented back in 1972 was a very different one to that of 2021. Today, he must accommodate his young progressive support base, galvanised by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC who has said that the Biden climate agenda is "not enough".

However, politics is as much a motivation as a drawback. There are two factors associated with this: division in public opinion and an unaccommodating government structure.

For division in public opinion, it is known that a sizeable portion are "sceptical" about climate change, ranging from total deniers to fossil fuels advocates. Moreover, the Republican party's anti-climate stance is a credible platform that can loudly echo such apprehensions.

The rather limited jurisdiction of the federal government results in unequal and inconsistent climate change public policy and outcomes for each federal state. For example, California's carbon neutrality target of 2045 or Nevada's law to increase the amount of renewable energy to 50% by 2050 exemplify resolute efforts, a handful of "red states" remain idle.

Solutions to these hurdles may include designing a central policy that gives a way for future presidents to repeal environmental regulations, particularly by executive order, or by urging Congress to establish certain national emissions standards that apply to all 50 states. Understandably, instituting these measures would be much easier said than done, highlighting the struggles that the US needs to overcome.

On the other hand, the epicentre of the Chinese motivation for climate action is security. Firstly, it is about energy security. China is a net-importer of both oil and gas, placing the country in an extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged position.

In 2017, China surpassed the US as the world's largest crude oil importer, and in 2020, imported oil made up 73.4% of the country's overall oil consumption. Moreover, 56% of its imports come from the Opec countries and 14% are from Russia.

Furthermore, China's attempt to slash reliance on heavy-polluting coal to tackle local air pollution has spurred an increase in natural gas consumption, with demand forecasted to hit a record-high in 2021. Despite doubling its domestic production, natural gas imports account for 45%, with pipeline imports coming mostly from Turkmenistan and Russia, while sources of LNG imports may be more diversified, but price volatility is the main worry as witnessed by the price spike earlier this year.

This makes China completely exposed to any supply disruptions: be they civil unrest in oil-exporting countries or accidents along maritime trade routes. What makes matters worse is that the US, once muddled in the Middle East, no longer faces the same predicament following its discovery of domestic shale oil and gas.

The second security dimension is the security of the Chinese government itself. In the early 2010s, the emergence of winter smog, especially the 2013 Beijing "Airpocalypse", elevated air pollution to a major national concern for the Chinese public. The attention and distress from this issue was so high that many believed it could undermine the popular standing of the Chinese government, and it eventually led to the declaration of the "war on pollution".

While China's win-win scenario and its promotion of clean energy may be seen as beneficial for the world environment, it is still not enough. The problem is that China remains steadfast in its use of coal. In 2020, the country's overall coal consumption continued to rise, and dozens of new coal-fired power plants came online -- in fact, the equivalent of one large coal-fired power plant was built every week. Despite all the progress China has made, this paradox is the elephant in the room.

Today, climate action is now an international priority, with the two biggest economies placing the issue at the heart of their national agendas. The next crucial step forward hinges on the sincerity of their leaders and if they have the bravery to forsake polluting traditional energy sources.

Pornphrom Vikitsreth is a lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts -- course International Studies ASEAN-China (IAC) and a consultant at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

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