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Sustainability: Key Topics in US-China Relations

A brief summary of environmental cooperation between the United States and China.

By: Cherry Kuruppacherry, John Grintzias, Julian Anderson
(Image credit: Republic World)


Cooperation between the United States and China is essential to address key challenges in sustainability. However, the current state of environmental cooperation is best described as incremental progress beset by geopolitical rivalry. In recent years, even modest areas of collaboration have been subsumed by competition. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in early August worsened this dynamic, causing tensions to erupt between the two great powers. In response, China reversed previous arrangements on participation in climate change dialogues, casting a dark shadow over the COP27 meeting in Egypt currently taking place from November 6 through 18. Leaders from 130 countries have congregated at the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference to discuss how to tackle climate change. But with relations between the world’s two greatest powers and largest greenhouse gas emitters increasingly strained, COP27 may not achieve as much as hoped. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. and China will set aside their political differences to strengthen climate cooperation. This primer will examine the state of Sino-American cooperation over two major topics in sustainability: climate change and environmental degradation.

Climate Change

Despite innumerable differences, climate change has been one of the few areas of common ground that China and the U.S. agree on. Particularly under the Obama administration, environmental policies brought both countries together in the fight against climate change and encouraged others to do the same. Beginning with the Paris Agreement in 2014, former U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met to discuss ways to lower carbon emissions. The U.S. pledged to reduce carbon emissions between 26-28% below the emission rate in 2005 by 2025, whereas China pledged to make 20% of its primary energy source non-fossil fuels and hit their peak carbon emission by 2030. As the two biggest contributors to carbon emissions, the American and Chinese pledges set examples that encouraged other countries to follow in their footsteps. By the time COP 21 was held in December 2015, 180 other countries announced their own climate change targets. Similarly, the U.S. and China established policies on aviation carbon emission levels under the CORSIA resolution in 2016. Although commonly overlooked, airplane CO2 emissions represent another obstacle in the path of net zero emissions. Both countries promised to cap aviation levels at the 2020 amount by 2027 — which was changed to the 2019 amount of 81 million metric tons to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic — and inspired 66 other countries to voluntarily join as well. 

Climate change cooperation has historically strengthened Sino-American relations, but has become more of a sore point in recent years. In 2017, former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement to focus more on the domestic economy rather than environmental policies. This received great backlash globally as many criticized the U.S. for abdicating its responsibility to climate leadership. In comparison, China continued to hold their end of the agreement as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated “…China will move towards the 2030 goal step by step”. As the U.S. backed further away from climate cooperation, China took up the mantle by meeting their own climate goals and becoming an environmental leader. In addition to working on meeting the Paris Agreement and increasing non-fossil fuel consumption, China provided aid to countries like Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga to meet their climate targets and became a “green collaborator” in the process. More recently, Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan resulted in further setbacks for the two countries’ joint environmental collaboration. China described Pelosi’s visit as severely disregarding Chinese sovereignty, causing the nation to suspend all climate change talks with the U.S. and damaging its relationship with the Biden administration regarding climate change policies. 

During COP26, Biden met with Xi to discuss new environmental policies. Although the leaders did not agree on other agenda items like methane limitations, both nations recommitted to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5℃ increase in temperature goal and more climate cooperation within the next decade. However, climate policy is no longer common ground, as bilateral communication did not resume prior to the COP27 summit. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry stated he and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, were discussing how climate discussions might resume, and were able to briefly meet during the COP27 conference. While nothing concrete has been established yet, this may potentially indicate a warming of relations after a tense past couple of months. Still, climate change has transformed from a uniting issue to a dividing one in the U.S.-China sphere.

Environmental Degradation

Environmental degradation covers activities that deteriorate the environment through the depletion of natural resources. This issue has become critical for China as air pollution sickens cities and mining for rare earth minerals dumps toxic chemicals into the country’s soil and streams. While there are many issues in environmental degradation that the U.S. and China may collaborate on, for the sake of brevity, this section will focus on deforestation and dam construction.

Deforestation is one area largely compartmentalized from geopolitical issues that the U.S. and China have made progress on. At the COP26 meeting in 2021, over 100 world leaders including the U.S. and China agreed to cooperate in combating illegal deforestation. They pledged to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030. Leading up to that meeting, China had made some gains after decades of struggling to prevent deforestation. By 2020, the total percentage of forests in China had increased from 8.6% in 1947 to 23.04%. This is in part due to China’s investments in preventing deforestation, which are second to Japan. Between 2020 and 2021, China planted 6.77 million hectares of forest that costed 7.75 trillion yuan (1.18 trillion USD). However, the rate of deforestation in China has risen in recent years, indicating that there are still major challenges to overcome. Looking to COP27, experts highlighted forest conservation as a key part of the agenda. Given the relative absence of political tensions over forest conservation, there is hope of renewed commitment by the U.S. and China to protect the world’s forests.

However, Sino-American cooperation on dam construction has been hampered by geopolitical competition. Dams generate hydroelectric energy which can replace coal-fired power plants, reducing carbon emissions and air pollution. But, dams can also damage the natural environment and lead to water pollution, habitat destruction, and river ecosystem destruction. An example of this would be the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam, which caused landslides, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and even earthquakes

However, dam construction also creates opportunities for cooperation. This is true particularly in Africa where collaboration on dams between the U.S. and China could have tremendous benefits. In the Tigray region, Ethiopia has been at a dispute with Egypt and Sudan regarding their construction of the Blue Nile Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). As of 2021, the GERD is more than 80 percent complete. Egypt greatly relies on the Nile River, receiving 90 percent of their needs from the river. However, Ethiopia also views the construction of GERD as essential to the improvement of millions of people in the region, and contracted out some of the construction to Chinese companies. In 1929, the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Agreement guaranteed Egypt an annual water allocation of 48 billion cubic meters and Sudan 4 billion cubic meters. Ethiopia’s construction of GERD essentially bypasses this agreement since they can control the allocation of water, causing Egypt and Sudan to potentially lose out. These concerns create a potential flashpoint for regional tensions, but some experts argue that it also creates an opportunity for cooperation. With U.S. influence and more than $3.3 billion of Chinese capital at stake, the two powers could come together to mediate the dam dispute. The U.S could persuade Egypt to abandon the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Nile Agreement, and China could stress how important the Nile River water supply is to Egypt, persuading Ethiopia to re-enter negotiations. But the GERD isn’t the only dam in Africa with an opportunity for cooperation. China proposed a joint effort with the U.S. regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Inga-3 hydropower project. However, deterioration of the overall relationship has made joint dam projects politically difficult. Even in cases with potential for mutual benefit, collaboration on dam construction remains unlikely.

The state of Sino-American environmental cooperation is tenuous. Heightened tensions and geopolitical competition have spilled over into the environmental realm, making even modest efforts at collaboration difficult to achieve. Climate cooperation has suffered and potential joint dam construction projects have stalled. However, cooperation on more compartmentalized issues like forest preservation have continued. The result is that one of the only positive aspects of the U.S.-China relationship has taken a turn for the worse. Looking towards the future, the strength of environmental cooperation between the two great powers will depend on their willingness to set aside rivalry and find common ground.


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