China suspended cooperative climate talks with the United States after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) recent trip to Taiwan, raising questions about what the two countries’ worsening relationship means for global climate action. But contrary to initial worries, some observers are taking hope from a “clean energy arms race” in the making.
When Pelosi set foot in Taiwan in early August, China viewed the visit as a “provocation”. In addition to launching military drills, Beijing announced it will no longer cooperate with the U.S. on several key issues—including climate change. China canceled an upcoming binational climate working group meeting as part of its retaliation, even though climate change is a major threat to both countries.
“I don’t think there is any benefit or strategic advantage to either country suspending talks, and this has much more to do with the message that Beijing is sending to Washington that Taiwan trumps all other diplomatic concerns, including climate change,” Ilaria Mazzocco, a fellow and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told The Energy Mix.
But the announcement had climate advocates forecasting a slowdown of global progress toward effective climate action.
“The suspension of climate talks between the two largest emitters is bad news for climate action,” Greenpeace East Asia advisor Li Shuo told China Dialogue. “What matters most is each country’s domestic actions, but we should not underestimate the value of their engagement.”
Good relations between the two countries have been important for past climate successes, like the signing of the 2015nParis agreement and China’s decisions to embrace carbon neutrality and halt overseas coal investment, Shuo noted. He predicted that China’s action to suspend collaboration could undermine progress at the upcoming COP 27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November.
“Expect more turbulent politics there as a result of today,” Shuo told Climate Home News in early August, on the heels of Pelosi’s visit.
But in the weeks since, other commentators have suggested the newly-sparked competition could move climate action forward more than cooperation could have. Despite a broken-down partnership, both countries are struggling with natural disasters and other impacts of climate change—for example, important regions of both China and the U.S. face long-running droughts that are evolving into historic water crises that will have implications for agriculture and energy—which will likely motivate them to sustain domestic climate measures.
Moreover, a competitive “clean energy arms race” could yield greater results now than in years past after the U.S. passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Because “China decided years ago that the clean energy transition is a strategic advantage for them,” said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, it has invested more heavily in clean energy than the U.S. and has felt its advantage secure, even when the two countries cooperate.
But while China’s investment in its own energy transition still dwarfs America’s in comparison, several IRA provisions—like those that support domestic supply chains and mining for critical minerals—signal that the U.S. will be a stronger competitor. That could spur more action in China if the country wants to maintain its dominance in the clean energy transition, says Politico.
“What [the IRA] does is show to the Chinese that the U.S. is actually going to be real in this game and not actually just going to talk about it, and I think that’s a benefit to everyone,” Schmidt said. “The planet will benefit from that healthy competition.”
But even if America’s rise in climate leadership creates a “competitive virtuous circle” that will “spur China to be bolder,” Mazzocco said decisions are still more likely to be based on domestic climate and economic conditions. And climate change impacts directly affecting each country could actually undermine domestic decarbonization efforts—in China, for instance, immediate economic woes like those caused by the drought could undercut the country’s ambition to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S.‑China partnership has also influenced global climate action beyond each country’s motivation to develop its clean energy sector. Shuo said the combined economic and political weight of the two global powers has added important momentum to climate negotiations. And Bernice Lee, Hoffmann distinguished fellow for sustainability at Chatham House, warned that the fallout between the two countries could be used “by other national governments, or domestic vested interests in China or the U.S., to delay climate action.”
Climate progress also depends on actions taken at a smaller scale, and the quietening of the two countries’ dialogue will likely disrupt groups and organizations operating at sub-national levels. Mazzocco said that could be especially harmful for climate progress.
“If I were looking for where the real losses will be felt, I’d see how this affects subnational cooperation and the operations of NGOs,” she said. “Academic and scientific cooperation has already taken a huge hit over the past few years. I’d imagine this would be the final nail in the coffin for research on climate specifically.”