Leading the charge? Both China and the US have a long way to go to become green exemplars to the world

June 09, 2021


Leading the charge?

June 09, 2021

Michael Gold

Managing editor

Michael is a managing editor at Economist Impact. Although Michael has roots in Montreal, he grew up in Palo Alto, California and attended Yale University, where he majored in anthropology. Prior to joining the Economist Group, Michael was a correspondent for Reuters in Taipei, where he covered the technology sector. He has also worked in Beijing and is fluent in Mandarin. 


The urgency of climate change has forced the world’s diplomats into a delicate dance, one in which the co-operation required to address this existential threat must be balanced against myriad points of disagreement in other fields. Nowhere is this more apparent than for the US and China, the world’s two biggest economies and the source of nearly half of all global emissions in 2019. As both countries make a serious effort to tackle their own emissions, questions are emerging about the extent to which either of the two superpowers will be able to assume a global leadership role in accelerating the transition to net-zero emissions. Will the US be able to show the global community that it can implement a coherent domestic climate policy that will endure? And, given its position at the centre of global green-energy supply chains, is China gaining clout in international climate diplomacy?

Start with China. In some ways, the country is a green powerhouse. It accounts for and produces . Its was lauded by some as a much-needed fillip in the global battle against climate change. According to Angel Hsu of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Chinese government’s recognition of the magnitude of the problem, its commitment to science and its top-down governance structure suggests that it has a strong chance of meeting its 2060 goal. “China has always viewed clean energy and climate policy as central to economic policy,” she says.

Yet these advantages mask the fact that China is still heavily reliant on dirty energy; last year it brought online than the rest of the world combined. It also exports a tremendous amount of pollution, with over half of its since 2000 devoted to oil and coal—and only 1.5% to wind or solar. Its most recent five-year plan, issued in March—which pundits would dramatically accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels—is not aggressive enough to meet its own lofty domestic goals, according to observers.

“The [clean-energy] targets in the 14th five-year plan are a bit of a step back from the ambition we saw in the last cycle,” says Joanna Lewis of Georgetown University. “The government is indicating it wants an intense period of growth coming out of the pandemic, and I’m worried they’re sending the wrong signals.”


Money talks

Beyond its domestic performance, few see strong indications that China will expend diplomatic capital in goading other countries into upping their climate commitments. Chinese foreign relations are commonly thought to be shaped by a policy of , an ethos that carries over to the climate realm. China was for taking a forceful stance at the 2015 Paris negotiations in favour of bold action, although Jonas Nahm of Johns Hopkins University believes that any notion of Chinese “leadership” on climate is largely a halo effect of its overwhelming lead in the global market for low-carbon energy technologies. “International climate agreements have been attractive to the Chinese government as a way of cultivating export markets for products the country was already creating,” he says.

Ms Hsu believes that China should nudge its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—the main conduit by which it builds energy infrastructure overseas—into adopting a greener tinge. In financing coal plants around the world, the BRI perpetuates the cycle of fossil fuel-powered growth that experts say must essentially within the next two decades in order to avert the worst effects of climate change. “Money speaks volumes,” says Ms Hsu. “[The BRI] could be a really powerful way for them to exert that kind of [green] influence.”


Broken promises

For all the consternation about China’s role in combating climate change, it benefits from one quality the US : credibility. At the 2015 Paris conference, the US as a leader in international climate negotiations, successfully spearheading the first major agreement to keep global warming in check. Although the Trump administration subsequently pulled out from the accord—and undermined climate action more broadly—the Biden administration has earned plaudits for its comprehensive and far-reaching vision of a carbon-free economy, and pledging to .

Yet this plan has not, on its own, done much to convince sceptics that the US will be a reliable partner, let alone a global leader. The biggest stain on the US government’s image is its inability to translate a road map into concrete policy at the federal level. “The US needs to ante up,” says Deborah Seligsohn of Villanova University. “Other parties have put into the pot—where are you?”

Ms Seligsohn believes that, in terms of influence on policy, a 2060 net-zero goal for China is much more meaningful than a similar goal for the US. “[In China] you have a party that still intends to be in power,” she says. Executive orders in the US—a key means of achieving climate-related goals—are, on the other hand, easily reversed by subsequent administrations.

Still, experts applaud the Biden administration’s priorities, in which the US government takes a page out of China’s playbook in fostering domestic green industries. “If you get companies making a ton of money from building solar farms and urban mass transit and doing home retrofits, you create a new set of lobbyists,” Ms Seligsohn says. This would underscore the value of clean energy to even sceptical lawmakers and put the entire US economy on a greener footing.

Progress at the federal level would also augment , a trend that pundits credit for helping to keep the US from wholesale backsliding on its climate commitments. Yet whether Biden’s climate proposals can make it through Congress unscathed remains uncertain. For all the statements, summits, promises and proclamations, only concerted federal action on the ground will help the US to regain its leadership position on climate in the eyes of the world.


Making change

Much of the political will to combat climate change in either country will come in the form of enhanced research and development (R&D) spending. This could be a major catalyst for action in industries that lack economic incentives to decarbonise, as advanced green technology is still often prohibitively expensive. With government coffers fully deployed, innovations could spread rapidly throughout the economy, boosting the standing of whichever country best leverages them. On this front, China , spending $83bn in 2019 on clean-energy R&D, compared with $55bn in the US. The Biden administration is pushing a in green R&D, ostensibly motivated by competition with China. Whoever leads the industries of tomorrow, the next few years will be pivotal in determining whether the global community can turn its climate aspirations into action.

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