Sino-American rift impacts climate action

Geopolitical and economic rivalry between China and the United States, the world’s two largest carbon emitters, distracted delegates at the COP26 Climate Summit from finding ways to help poorer countries address the climate crisis.

The needs of countries like Nepal, which are trying to adapt to melting mountains, erratic monsoons, droughts and floods, were therefore sidelined.

With the Friday deadline looming, and ministers in closed door meetings all night, there are fears that the countries that have been least responsible for the climate crisis will continue to bear most of the burden from its impact.

“In every session in Glasgow we saw China vs America,” said Harjeet Singh of Climate Action South Asia. Except for some high income countries pledging limited resources for climate adaptation, there was very little progress till Friday morning in Glasgow.

The tone for the war of words between the US and China was set by President Joe Biden’s speech to the summit on 3 November in which he slammed the Russian and Chinese leaders for skipping the conference.

Indeed, even former US president Barak Obama used his speech on Thursday to target China and Russia. He said: “It was particularly discouraging to see the leaders of two of the world’s largest emitters, China and Russia, declined to even attend the proceedings … their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency and willingness to maintain the status quo on the part of those governments, and that’s a shame.”

Although there has been an attempt to patch up differences with an unexpected announcement on Tuesday of a Sino-US agreement on climate cooperation, the overall mood here is of doom and gloom that COP26 will not yield the kind of urgent emission cuts needed to keep global average temperatures below 1.5 Celsius by 2050.

Obama’s statement sent sparks flying, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin hitting back, saying: “Actions speak louder than words. What we need in order to deal with climate change is concrete action rather than empty words. China’s actions in response to climate change are real.”

With hours to go for the closing of the COP26 in Glasgow, most delegates here are not optimistic that the emission cut commitments by countries with the largest carbon footprints will be enough to keep temperature rise within safe limits.

Meanwhile UN General Secretary António Guterres has welcomed the joint agreement between China and the United States, calling it a step in the right direction in tackling the climate crisis. Climate experts are skeptical, however.

“Similar agreements have been made between these two countries previously, this is nothing new. What matters is their implementation,” says Nabin Singh Khadka of the BBC World Service.

In fact, 2015’s landmark Paris Agreement was a result of 30 rounds of talks between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But in 2020, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord. This misstep only made it easier for the next big emitters, China and India, to continue with their carbon-based economies.

Only a year later Biden reinducted the United States to the global pact but his attempt to lead the climate action has failed with more immediate geopolitical turmoil taking precedence.

The United States and China are at each other’s throat in the race to the global superpower and the each is trying to get as many European and Asian countries under their alliance.

Less than two months ago, the US signed the ‘Aukus’ security pact with Australia and the UK. The US had previously formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, India, South Korea and Australia back in 2007.

China is not happy with these alliances and had been rebuffing the US’s offer in climate cooperation. The US is vocal about China needing to cut down its emissions as one of the main emitters, whereas China is of the opinion that historical emissions by developed countries should also be taken into account.

The US was the biggest emitter of GHG from 1950-2005. When it emitted 19.79 million tons of GHG in 1950, China was not even in the list of emitters. It was only since 2006 that China started to overtake the US in emissions. The figure for the US in 2005 was 6.13 billion ton and for China was 5.88 billion ton. This has soared to 10.67 billion tons for China in 2020 and down to 4.71 billion tons for the US.

India, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia among other countries are backing China in its argument. The resulting debate has further delayed the implementation of the climate agreements. Developed countries did pledge $100 billion to the Green Climate Fund in 2015 but only $70 billion has been deposited so far.

Ahmed Kamruzzaman Majumdar of the Stamford University in Dhaka says the geopolitical interests of the countries are reflected in climate summits, further endangering the health of the planet. “The United States and other developed countries are trying to get away by highlighting China’s contribution. But they also have to be serious about reducing their emissions.”

Harjit Singh of the South Asia Climate Action agrees. "The US, Australia and Canada have a historic and important role in emissions but China, Phillipines, Indonesia and India where industrialistion has only recently picked up should lead with green economy,” he says.

Raju Pandit, a climate expert who has been participating in climate conferences from Nepal for over a decade, says that climate change is also a political and economic issue, and should be treated accordingly.

"We have to put the plant at the centre of our decision making. If the climate issue is not addressed and there is no cooperation, there is no alternative but to face more difficult times ahead,” he says.

Least developed countries like Nepal are most impacted by the climate crisis. The reluctance of big economies to be held responsible has added to the problem. “We have to continue pressuring them. Compensation for loss and damage in our part of the world is a matter of justice,” adds Majumdar.

In the meantime, Nepal must prepare for more extreme weather events and deploy mitigation measures available at home. Says Khadka: “We have to start working with the resources we have, we can’t just keep waiting for others to help us.”