Joe Biden

Xi Jinping Should Cooperate With Joe Biden on Climate Change

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden has made no secret of his desire to work with China on combating climate change. His counterpart Xi Jinping might hope to trade China’s cooperation for concessions on other issues, whether trade or Taiwan. In this case, however, Xi would be wiser not to haggle.

In theory, Biden does need Xi more than the other way around. Climate change is the U.S. president’s top priority. And, if Biden wants to rally the world behind a major new effort to prevent global warming, he will need China’s support at the follow-up to the Paris climate conference, to be held in Glasgow later this year.

Meanwhile, China arguably has less to prove in the eyes of the world. The country — home to almost half of the world’s electric vehicles — has made impressive progress in introducing clean energy. Xi’s recent pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 has been universally welcomed, especially in contrast to the retrograde policies of the Trump administration.

Biden on the other hand faces immense hurdles to restoring U.S. credibility. Despite his fine sentiments, the rest of the world knows that fierce Republican resistance will stymie many of his policies. Other countries will think twice about raising their own climate ambitions, knowing that Trump or one of his acolytes could win back the presidency in 2024 and reverse any progress Biden may have made by then.

Nevertheless, Xi may not have as much leverage as he might think. For one thing, China remains the world’s largest emitter of CO2, responsible for 28% of the world’s total emissions in 2020. Obstructing progress on climate for transactional reasons would quickly draw the ire of the international community.

Moreover, trying to drive a hard bargain isn’t likely to yield all that much. Antipathy toward China runs so wide and deep in the U.S. political establishment that Biden’s ability to make any substantive concessions is limited. His climate envoy John Kerry has already ruled out trading favors in other areas for Chinese support on climate. Unless China gives some sign of changing course — for instance, in its approach to Xinjiang or Hong Kong — Biden would pay too high a political cost for any broad attempt to mend ties.

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