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Can Xi and Biden’s Climate Deal Prevent a Second Cold War?

A glimmer of hope, courtesy of climate diplomacy.

President Biden and Xi Jinping.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The past couple years have seen escalating tensions between China and the United States. On the one hand, the brutally repressive nature of the Chinese government has become undeniable, with the crushing of protests in Hong Kong and the ongoing cultural genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. On the other, the Biden administration has tightened Trump-era technology controls intended to prevent China from developing cutting-edge expertise in semiconductors, as well as other trade restrictions. Chinese and Taiwanese fighter jets are routinely getting into squabbles over Taiwan’s airspace.

It sure looks like another cold war is developing. However, we saw an unexpected diplomatic bright spot during U.S.-China talks this week, when both countries agreed to take steps to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030, and to cut emissions from power production over the same period. As Lisa Friedman writes at The New York Times, “That appears to be the first time China has agreed to specific emissions targets in any part of its economy.” That is good, and might even help defuse a full blown second cold war.

Now, the agreement did not say anything about cutting coal use, which has previously been a core U.S request. However, this isn’t as meaningful as it might seem. China does use an ungodly quantity of coal — the main reason why it now emits more than 60 percent more carbon pollution than the U.S. and the EU put together — and that is no doubt why cutting coal is not mentioned.

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  • But Chinese coal will be phased out regardless of any diplomatic agreement, likely sooner rather than later, for two reasons. First, power from natural gas and renewables is now considerably cheaper than that of coal, and increasingly so in the latter case as technology continues to improve. Brute market forces are the primary reason why American coal use peaked in 2007 and has since fallen by 60 percent. Coal power is simply a poor business proposition in 2023 — continuing to use it is leaving money on the table.

    Second, the filth spewed forth by burning coal imposes a terrific health burden on the Chinese population. Seemingly every few months a new study is published showing air pollution is even worse than we thought. The air quality in Beijing was an international disgrace for decades; it has since been greatly improved, in part by halting the use of coal for residential heating and cooking. But according to the World Health Organization, air pollution still kills some two million Chinese annually, along with untold cases of asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, and so on.

    All that sickness is extremely expensive — costing America about $2,500 per person annually, according to one study. That’s easily enough that ending the use of fossil fuels would pay for itself over the long term even if you ignore climate change altogether.

    In short, the ever-declining price of renewables, and the advancing awareness of just how costly air pollution is, have made the task of climate diplomacy far easier. No great sacrifice is required; countries must simply agree to do what is already in their best interest.

    Still, the push of diplomatic agreements have their place. Actually building out a fully zero-carbon economy pencils out on paper, but will require a lot of complicated, expensive, and annoying electricity transmission and storage upgrades to deal with the intermittency of renewable power. Formal commitments can help break through the inertia.

    So what is actually happening on the ground? In America, we did finally pass a serious climate bill, four decades after the undeniable proof of climate change was brought to the attention of Congress, in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act. Solar and wind investment are indeed skyrocketing, along with the domestic manufacturing industry intended to buttress that investment politically. It isn’t enough yet, but it’s a good start.

    On the Chinese side, it must be admitted that China’s renewable investment wildly outstrips what America is doing, even with the IRA. China has put up 25.6 gigawatts of offshore wind, as compared to America’s pitiful 30 megawatts, or about one-thousandth as much. This year alone China will put up more solar than the entirety of America’s extant installed solar capacity. Nobody on earth does big and fast better than China.

    That said, China’s planning of renewables appears to be quite haphazard, particularly on solar. As David Fickling writes at Bloomberg, the amount of solar power actually produced relative to capacity is not far from the U.K. and France — temperate countries with a lot of cloud cover. This is because thus far the bulk of China’s solar has been placed in the temperate south and east, rather than in the dry north and west. So while the volume is about right, the execution isn’t there yet.

    Incidentally, this might be a worthy topic for future climate talks — America can share best practices about getting the largest number of megawatts for your solar dollar, while China can share tips about how to build big projects without taking 15 years and going over budget by 500 percent.

    So I return to the incipient U.S.-China cold war. To anyone with any sense, it is plainly obvious that neither party can actually defeat the other without also devastating itself. Both countries have nuclear weapons and enormous militaries, backed by equally enormous economies. Yet those economies are also profoundly intertwined — particularly when it comes to climate, as China is by far the largest producer of solar panels. Trying to stand up a domestic renewable industry as the Biden administration is doing is one thing, but total cessation of trade would wreck both China and America, and greatly hinder the global climate transition to boot.

    Some kind of 1970s-style detente is obviously called for — a rough agreement where both countries can continue to develop internally and flex some diplomatic muscle abroad, but without blowing up the status quo or getting in a shooting war.

    In the social media age, where blasting out the most inflammatory and unhinged message is greatly rewarded, propaganda has arguably never been more powerful or insidious. Vladimir Putin, for instance, was reportedly convinced of a conspiracy theory (originally invented by a segment of the Lyndon LaRouche cult) that the “color revolutions” of the mid-2000s, the Arab Spring, and the Euromaidan in Ukraine, were all secretly cooked up by George Soros and the CIA, which is one reason why he was so hostile to Ukraine joining the EU.

    Heading off this kind of misunderstanding with China, which is an order of magnitude more formidable than Russia at least, is critical. And one good way to do that is just to keep diplomatic contact going. Top level officials meeting face to face, where relationships can develop and understanding grow, tends to defuse the grotesque distortions of propaganda lies. It’s no guarantee, of course, but it has worked in the past. The longer serious conflict can be put off, the greater the chance of settling into a live-and-let-live pattern, and the better chance the world has to carry out the energy transition.

    Read more about China:

    China Could Massively Juice Its Clean Energy Industry. The World Isn’t Ready.


    Ryan Cooper

    Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics." Read More

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