Concern for the planet, or a statement that the US is back? Biden’s virtual summit puts the ball in Xi’s court, as the US reclaims a leading role on international climate action

Concern for the planet, or a statement that the US is back? Biden’s virtual summit puts the ball in Xi’s court, as the US reclaims a leading role on international climate action

President Biden has shown his intent to restate the US as global leaders on climate change as he hosted a virtual summit on 22-23 April, encouraging states to build on their climate pledges. It has been hailed as a major success, uniting leading countries in climate action. However, the summit has sparked debate regarding climate politics. As competition between the US and China reaches its zenith, climate change remains one of the few areas left for them to cooperate on. Whether climate action will lead to healthy competition or conflict will depend on a range of factors over the next decade.

Biden to reassert US leadership on issues such as climate change

Following a joint statement with China addressing the climate crisis on April 17th, the US submitted a new ‘nationally determined contribution’ (NDC) at the virtual summit led by Biden on April 22nd and 23rd, increasing their climate commitment, while Xi Jinping and China chose only to reiterate their pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060. The US pledged a new target to achieve a 50-52 percent reduction below 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution in 2030.

The summit, in spite of some technical issues, has been hailed as a major success by analysts as Canada, Japan, the US, and many others increased their climate pledges. While this may have been the case; however, it seems there was more than just the climate on Biden’s agenda.

In fact, Biden used this virtual summit as a platform on which to reassert US leadership, following the isolationist and protectionist posture that characterised the Trump administration. The last four years have damaged America’s international reputation and legitimacy, and Biden’s voracious activity in his first 100 days in office has been, thus far, seemingly successful damage control. He has reinitiated America’s participation in several international agreements and reaffirmed their commitment to international institutions. Whilst there remains a lot more work to be done before Washington regains international recognition as a leader on issues such as climate change, these are certainly steps in the right direction to achieve that end.

Sino-US Climate Politics

However, amidst peak tensions with China, Biden shows no sign of softening the hard-line stance that embodied the second half of his predecessor’s term. This summit can thus be seen as a platform for climate politics, as Biden appeared to one-up Xi, who did not commit to upgrading China’s climate pledge. Climate change is one of the few remaining areas where cooperation between China and the US appears to be positive. However, increasing tensions and hawkish stances risk ushering climate policy into an arena of competition, particularly as climate politics becomes increasingly prevalent on the world stage.

The competition for who can lead the world on climate change is likely to become a crucial battle throughout the twenty-first century, with climate change taking a progressively vital role in international politics. This kind of atmosphere could go one of two ways: a little healthy competition could spark the urgency required to tackle one of the greatest issues of our time, as nations rush to lead in climate action. However, on the flipside, if the Sino-US climate cooperation turns sour and politics of blaming take over from productive diplomacy, this could have very real policy implications. If the two most powerful nations ever to have existed and the largest emissions contributors do not work together on a solution to climate change, this will encumber the kind of profound change that is needed to mitigate global warming.

Looking forward: An opportunity for collaboration, or grounds for antagonism?

We are yet to see any negative fallout, and this summit may continue to be seen as a resounding success. That said, it is very possible that Biden might cite this in the future, accusing Xi of being soft on climate action policy and further tarnishing their already questionable ethical record. Biden, however, must exercise caution and be careful not to antagonise China on an issue where cooperation is imperative for the future of the planet. Since Trump, the bilateral relationship has reached its lowest ebb since formal ties were established in January 1979 and any morsel of collaboration must be cherished in this increasingly adversarial environment.

America is more divided than it has been for a long time, and just about the only thing that is agreed across chambers is that America needs to be tough on China — perhaps a sign of anti-Chinese sentiment that has appeared to penetrate American culture and society. This makes areas of cooperation even more valuable and as such climate geopolitics must take a backseat, while climate action takes centre stage, if we are to usher in an era of much needed definitive climate action. The stakes are too high to fail in this seismic era, but only time will tell how Biden manages bilateral relations over the course of his administration. These years are likely to be crucial in the grand picture of Sino-US relations.

Categories: Environment, North America

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