Climate talks on the freeze

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The situation has suddenly taken a comical turn between the United States and China – the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – after the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highly controversial trip to Taiwan early this month, which compelled Beijing to suspend the ‘climate talks’ with Washington.

The bureaucracy in both the capitals is now engaged in intense ‘twitter war’ on the same matter. China is questioning whether the US can deliver on the historic climate legislation signed by President Biden into law last week. After the US Congress passed the landmark Climate Bill, China’s Foreign Ministry responded with a quite sarcastic tweet: “Good to hear. But what matters is: Can the US deliver?” This was responded by the US Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns as “you can bet America will meet our commitments.”He further called on China to resume suspended ‘climate talks’: “We’re ready.”The growing verbal scuffle after China’s refusal to continue with the US on climate and other issues as part of its protest over Pelosi’s visit, highlights a ‘perception divide’ between the long-standing superpower that wants to lead and the rising power that no longer wants to feel bound to follow anyone else’s direction. Former US President Donald Trump, because of his snobbish world view, pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord and his decision dealt a massive blow to America’s commitment and credibility on this issue.

Interestingly, Climate has been one of the few areas of cooperation between the two feuding powers, but the recent Twitter battle is exposing the underlying distrust and skepticism that has enveloped the mindset of both sides on this issue.

Factually speaking, a temporary pause in climate discussions at the diplomatic level is not expected to affect the collaboration between the two countries at the academic level. The choppy Sino-US political rivalry has never affected climate engagement in the past between the two countries. Despite intense and volatile friction between Washington and Beijing over economic sanctions and other contentious subjects including Taiwan and inclusion of China as ‘threat and challenge’ in official documents of NATO at the behest of the US, there has not been any disruption in ‘climate talks.’

Indubitably, with the ascension of Joe Biden in the Oval Office in January 2021,the progress on the dialogue on climate change between the two countries saw a renewed surge after being on the backburner for several years. US Climate envoy, John Kerry, was the first high-rank official sent by President Biden in April 2021 to visit China and have detailed sessions with Xie Zhenhua, China’s representative on climate change.

This was followed by another trip by Kerry in September – paving the way for both countries to sign a joint declaration at the climate summit in Glasgow, UK, in November, to enhance climate action in the 2020s, with clearly defined objectives that included setting standards for emissions reduction, deploying carbon-capture and storage technologies, and measuring and controlling methane emissions. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in May, both Kerry and Xie met again to explore the possibilities of further collaboration on the subject matter. Despite heightened tensions over the Taiwan Strait and suspension of talks at senior level, the academic interactions still appear to be immune to the political compulsions.

The scientific engagement between the academia and researchers is still going on without any hiccup. The good thing is that political heat has not affected the interactions among the scientific community on both sides so far. The suspension is currently restricted to talks between Kerry’s and Xie’s teams. Some optimistic analysts believe that political tension will not affect climate action, but there is every likelihood that a longer stand-off could have a chilling effect on academic collaborations. The second important aspect is that the global nature of the problem means that even if the two countries are not talking, it is not expected to cause any major dent to the entire global climate change agenda for the time being.

Talks between the world’s two largest carbon emitters are crucial for advancing global action on climate change. In spite of the existing lull, on their own parts, both countries have exhibited their commitment to addressing the problem within their own territories: the US Senate passed a colossal spending Bill for the clean-energy technologies, and meanwhile, China has also reiterated its commitment to become carbon neutral before 2060. A prolonged cleft between the two will apparently threaten the success of discussions at the next round of global climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. Interaction between the United States and China has been extremely crucial in expediating and facilitating multilateral consensus at previous summits, that’s why, apprehension is being expressed by the technical experts with regard to the existing freeze between the two.If the freeze in communications continues until November, then a politically divided climate summit is anticipated in Egypt.

Although the extent of China’s abnegation from climate discussions is still very vague, however, the fragility of the cooperation between the two countries on this high-priority global issue is being tested at a very wrong time – just a few months before the crucial UN Cop27 summit in Egypt. The immediate remedy to delay the gesticulation of disastrous global warming is too much dependent upon the collaboration between the US and China, who are responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

With unprecedented summer this year, that has witnessed heatwaves and wildfires hitting the US and Europe, scorching temperatures in China, Africa and Asia, catastrophic flooding in almost all the continents, the timing of the sudden aggravation of the already stressed Sino-US relations due to Pelosi’s controversial stopover in Taipei, poses a challenge to the ongoing, though still insufficient, progress on global warming.

It is also a bitter reality that most of the governments across the globe have not taken sufficient steps and are still falling behind their agreed temperature goals. Antonio Gueterres, the UN Secretary General has rightly warned that the goal of limiting heating is on “life support” with a weakening pulse. Similar are the thoughts of the Laurance Tubiana, Chief Executive of the European Climate Foundation and chief architect of the Paris climate accords, who admonished both Beijing and Washington in these words:”US-China relations have always been a rollercoaster and we often witness flare-ups, but while you can freeze talks, you cannot freeze climate impacts.”  Working on this strategic project is in the mutual benefit of both China and the US.

There is a recognition in China that it is in its own self-interest to act seriously, regardless of political differences with Washington, and adhere to Paris accords and fulfil all its domestic pledges around methane and coal phasedown. Similarly, the United States has also showed its seriousness by approving the legislation for the clean energy. The cooperation between the two countries can accelerate climate action this decade, especially in areas such as the cutting of methane emissions. A lot of still depends upon the cooling off the political temperature between Washington and Beijing.

Dr. Imran Khalid