Leaders Summit on Climate: Key Takeaways for US-China Relations

President Biden Addressing Leaders Climate Summit
White House photo by Adam Schultz/ Public Domain

The  Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by President Joe Biden was attended by 40 world leaders. The summit held on April 22-23, 2021 was important for more than one reason. 

First, Biden made an announcement that the US would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 50% from 2005 levels by 2030 (this is double of what the Obama administration had committed, while joining the Paris Agreement in 2015). Ever since taking over as President, Biden, whose approach towards global issues has been fundamentally different from Donald Trump, has sent out a strong message that his administration would not shy away from taking the lead on climate change issues. While addressing the summit, Biden’s director of National Intelligence Avril Haines dubbed climate change as a ‘security threat’ and a key component of US foreign policy. 

The US had withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord during Donald Trump’s presidency and the US re-joined the accord in February 2021 (within a month after Biden took over as President).

During his three months in office, Biden has sought to link his economic vision to his climate change agenda. Biden has sought approval for $2.5 billion funding for International Climate Financing (this includes $1.2 billion for the Green Climate Fund, a body set up by the UN). Apart from this, Biden’s ambitious $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan also seeks to address the issue of climate change by investing in clean energy sources like solar and wind power. However, the plan is facing stiff opposition, from Republicans, within a highly divided Senate.

Reactions to Biden’s announcement

Biden’s commitment that the US would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 at the Summit was lauded by some such as Nobel Laureate and Former US Vice President, Al Gore who called it a ‘ground breaking state.’ Republicans predictably have been scathing in their criticism of Biden’s stance on environmental issues. They argue that while China is the biggest global polluter American transition to clean energy will hurt American workers employed in the oil, natural gas and coal sectors.

The other interesting aspect of the Leaders Climate summit was the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi confirmed his attendance, only one day before the Summit began. Earlier this month, Biden’s envoy for climate change issues and Former Secretary of State John Kerry had visited China, and he and his Chinese counterpart agreed on the fact that there was scope for both countries to collaborate on climate change issues.  During Kerry’s China visit, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yucheng had made it unequivocally clear that Beijing could not follow US diktats.

While speaking at the Leaders Summit, Xi Jinping batted in favor of multilateralism, and cooperation with the US (days earlier while addressing the 2021 Boao Forum for Asia, Xi had made a similar point). Said the Chinese President at the Summit: “China looks forward to working with the international community, including the United States, to jointly advance global environmental governance.” Xi Jinping also said that China would reach peak carbon emissions by 2030. He had first stated this during an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2020.

How both Xi and Biden used the summit to outline their economic vision

Interestingly, during their speeches both Biden and Xi Jinping did not miss out on linking economic goals to their vision for environmental governance. Xi spoke in favor of the need for an environment-friendly ‘green’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is important because a number of BRI-related projects have faced fervent opposition in numerous countries for lacking transparency and also the potential damage they could cause to the environment. One such example is the controversial Myitsone Dam project in Myanmar which had been put on hold during the NLD (National League for Democracy) Government’s tenure. The military junta which staged a coup in February 2021 and overthrew the NLD government is seeking to revive Myitsone and other stalled hydropower projects in order to draw Chinese support.

Biden meanwhile said that climate change also provided opportunities. Said the US President: “It also presents one of the largest job creation opportunities in history.” A number of US CEOs, including Bill Gates, were also invited to the Summit. 

It would be pertinent to point out that Biden’s infrastructural plan which has a strong focus on clean energy and clean jobs is being touted by many analysts as a possible alternative to China’s ambitious BRI which has made progress but is not free of criticism as has been mentioned earlier. During his conversation with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in March 2021, Biden had stated that democratic countries should also have a rival plan to the BRI.

While the Leaders Climate Summit is an important initiative and is very much in line with Biden’s focus on climate change as a key component of his foreign policy, the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the summit, and the reconciliatory statements made by both US and China with regard to greater cooperation in the area of climate change are noteworthy. It also remains to be seen if Biden is able to link not just his domestic economic agenda to climate change but also come up with an alternative to the BRI which is inclusive and environment friendly. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.