Could Political Tensions Help Climate Change Efforts?

Huawei bans, TikTok censorship plans, and the Trump-named “Chinese virus” of 2020 have spotlighted the cracks in US-China relations, entrenched in a deep history of competition and conflict.

The locking horns of these two nations has undoubtedly caused anxiety for some, with murmurs of a “Second Cold War” circulating global news outlets.

However, as we go forward into the new year, conversation of climate change initiatives driven separately by the Biden administration and Xi Jinping’s leadership shines a light of new hope. With the two largest carbon-dioxide emitters battling to crunch climate change quickly and effectively, could 2021 show that competition can be used as a force for good? 

On 12 December 2020, Xi Jinping poetically emphasised “mountains and rivers green are mountains of silver and gold”, in a statement to the Climate Ambition Summit which outlined three important environmental proposals.

The first of these promoted that international cooperation is not only key to combating climate change but signposts a golden path for achieving benefits for all.

To approach this, Xi Jinping then called for an improved climate governance infrastructure to amplify action irrespective of national circumstances, which thirdly will act as a catalyst for inspiring green coronavirus recoveries and development.

This firm, but progressive, outlook was arguably a natural step from China’s landmark speech to the UN General Assembly in September, announcing their ambitions of peaking carbon-dioxide emissions before 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. 

Li Shuo, Greenpeace analyst, asserts that China’s bold remarks were geopolitically motivated with speculations that Xi Jinping was sharply pointing his message at Donald Trump. At this time, Trump had cut US ties with the globally recognised Paris Agreement and devoted more efforts to denying climate change as opposed to tackling it. This set China centre-stage for leading a powerful worldwide movement. 

But there has been a turn of events. After a turbulent election, the US presidency was secured by Joe Biden – a completely different kettle of fish when it comes to global warming.

As a long-lived politician, Biden has taken the reins on climate for years, whether this be through writing one of the first Senate climate change bills or overseeing America’s largest clean energy investment of $90 billion.

Now, as president, Biden is preparing to ambitiously take on the climate crisis through ensuring that by 2050 the US will be fuelled entirely by clean energy and attain zero-carbon emissions.

Despite being president for barely one month, Biden has already made his mark through re-joining the Paris Agreement and controversially, yet beneficially, cancelling extensions of the harmful Keystone XL pipeline. In doing so, Biden is “leading a diplomatic initiative to push other countries…beyond their Paris targets”, as stated in a 2019 campaign – mirroring the intentions of Xi Jinping. 

Although the two leaders do agree on lessening climate change, they do not agree on much else. PJ Crowley, former Assistant Secretary of State under Obama, expressed that growing scepticism between the two authorities only shows that their relationship is heading south.

Although Crowley indicated that there are undoubtedly ideal areas for US-China cooperation, it is very much a dog-eat-dog system, regardless of any existing familiarities between Biden and Xi Jinping. 

What direction these tensions will take is uncertain, but arguably, thorny politics could act as a motivator for driving climate action. Both nations are watching like hawks, devouring any opportunity to hold the other publicly accountable for wrongdoings.

We’ve seen it time and time again; with the coronavirus, the oppression of Uighur Muslims, and with climate change. Thus, after making such powerful public statements, political pressure has been reinforced.

Both nations have a point to prove as “leaders” against the climate crisis and all eyes are waiting for the next move. This match for the moral high ground is occurring against a backdrop of pre-existing climate change initiatives such as the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in November of this year.

Perhaps by then, it will be made clear whether China really is the rising star in tackling climate, or whether Biden will beat Xi Jinping to the top.

Either way, it is somewhat irrelevant. Any progress in environmentalism sparked by competition provides hope that things will change.