China and the U.S., the world’s biggest and second-biggest polluters, respectively, aren’t talking to each other about climate change any more. On Friday, amid escalating tensions between the two countries following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China said it would be pausing cooperation and meetings with the U.S. on climate change, along with a host of other issues.
The escalating situation between the U.S. and China is much larger than just climate action. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory, has kicked off a barrage of aggression as China responds to the diplomatic sleight—including sending warships and jets near Taiwanese and Japanese territory. This breakdown in talks follows a period of real climate progress between the two superpowers, a bright light after four years of climate stalemate during the Trump administration.
Last year, the U.S. and China announced their intentions to work together on a set of common climate goals, including the reduction of methane emissions—an important step, given that China sat out a larger global agreement to curb methane. China and the U.S. also issued a surprise joint statement reaffirming their commitment to climate action and their intent to “engage in expanded individual and combined efforts to accelerate the transition to a global net zero economy” at the end of last year’s climate meeting in November.
“There have been regular chats between the climate envoys, between the U.S. and China in the first half of the year,” said Byford Tsang, a climate diplomacy advisor at think tank E3G. “What they agreed to last year was to set up a working group to talk through these issues and come to more concrete proposals on how they can work together on a number of issues. So far, those talks haven’t produced any concrete outcomes in setting up a formal working group, so it hasn’t produced what they’ve promised to produce yet, and now, obviously, the process is suspended.”
The complex climate history and relationship between the two nations, which together comprise 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, can have real impacts for the rest of the world. Agreements and joint leadership between the two powers are often credited with helping to make the Paris Agreement a reality.
“Tension has been rising between the U.S. and China, and it’s not surprising cooperation between these two countries would suffer—obviously, that’s unfortunate,” said Tsang. “But in terms of what it means for climate change, climate action is not going to stop, because it’s in both the U.S. and China’s interest to work on climate.”
Both countries have been hit hard by climate disasters this summer—wildfires, heat waves, and floods in the U.S., as well as devastating floods in southwest China and heat waves in the west—and Tsang said both nations are aware of the growing urgency of climate action as well as the weight of their own commitments. And just because the two countries aren’t talking to each other doesn’t mean they’re not hard at work in advancing their own goals—which could spur the other on, in turn.
“Even though cooperation is not possible at the moment, it doesn’t mean the U.S. and China have to stop competing on climate,” said Tsang. “Both have made ambitious plans in terms of climate, both have made great technology a priority and developing industrial policies, both have made plans to ramp up support for energy transition abroad in other countries. If they can compete on these matters and continue to act on their own, we can still see more climate action, not less.”
Still, this type of one-upmanship stands to be significantly less productive for the rest of the world than the two working together.
“The future of the planet shouldn’t be a political tool, in this geopolitical competition,” said Tsang. “It’s unfortunate now that the dialogue between the two biggest emitters in the world is a casualty of this tension.”