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The U.S. and China agreed to work together on climate action. What would push this cooperation forward?

Surveys reveal that Chinese citizens want their government to address climate risks

A resident drives past a coal-fired power plant in Hanchuan, Hubei province. (Getty Images)

Will the United States and China, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, put aside their differences and agree to tackle climate change? That’s the outcome many people hoped to see at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP26.

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend the meetings in Glasgow, Scotland, in person, leaving many skeptical about the chances for progress at a conference widely billed as the world’s “last best chance.” Then, at a Wednesday news conference, both countries declared their intention to “work individually, jointly, and with other countries during this decisive decade.”

How optimistic can the world be about China’s participation in international climate efforts? Here’s what you need to know.

China’s emissions will be tough to stop

China emerged as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2006 and now spews out more carbon than the United States and Europe together. China is also the world’s most populous country, so per capita figures are only about half that of U.S. per capita emissions. China is still developing and its cumulative emissions are still far lower than those produced by the United States.

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But China is quickly catching up. The nation’s emissions already exceed that of all other developing countries combined.

China’s policymakers are aware of their outsize carbon footprint. Last year, Xi Jinping announced that China’s emissions would peak by 2030 and that the country would be carbon neutral by 2060. In the months before COP26, the Chinese government launched the world’s largest carbon trading market and announced plans to scale back domestic coal reliance and cease construction of new coal-fired plants abroad.

These announcements stoked optimism leading up to COP26. But neither Xi’s written statement to the global conference or the joint declaration offer much in terms of detail or ambition. China did not sign on to a global methane reduction pledge, although it promises to investigate the issue. China also did not pledge to phase out domestic coal, but neither did the United States or Germany. While some analysts caution against doubting China’s climate resolve, the data show that China’s energy sector is burning coal at record rates, while independent monitors, like the Climate Action Tracker, continue to rank China’s progress on climate mitigation as “highly inefficient.”

Domestic politics come first

Climate action is easier if the public sees it as a national interest. Surveys show that over 94 percent of Chinese citizens believe climate change is real, 66 percent believe it is caused by humans, an overwhelming majority are willing to pay extra or make mild lifestyle changes to reduce emissions — and nearly all see the Chinese government as responsible for addressing climate risks.

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While the Chinese public endorses climate action, my own surveys from the China Policy Barometer suggest that citizens are less supportive when they are told about international pressure — or informed that the United States is taking stronger climate protection efforts. These findings suggest international pressure, if done in public, could discourage rather than compel Chinese leaders into action.

This is not to say that the Chinese public doesn’t support cooperation — but the survey results suggest they want to see China in the lead, or at least on equal footing with the United States. As Xi has repeatedly telegraphed, China can work with the United States, but only under conditions of mutual respect.

Like all governments, Beijing faces competing economic interests and practical challenges when it comes to climate policy, like how to juggle growing electricity demand without relying on coal. When push comes to shove, such as during a recent bout of electricity blackouts, Chinese policymakers tend to opt for development and burn more coal. This is because they know that popular legitimacy rests on economic development. In that same spirit, China’s planners hope to reach the middle ranks of developed countries by 2035 — a nearly threefold increase in gross domestic product per capita from today. How they plan to square developmental ambitions with carbon reductions is unclear — and this week’s joint statement gives few clues or specific targets.

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Immediate reductions aren’t likely

At the moment, China remains a “developing country,” an internationally recognized status that places a low bar on China’s international obligations on matters like lowering trade barriers and subsidies as well as carbon reduction ambitions. Once China formally switches over to the rank of “developed” country, perhaps at some point in 2023, its perceived climate obligations will also increase. We can be sure that Chinese diplomats will cling on to the “developing” label for as long as possible.

China’s government sees climate policy as part of broader economic strategy that does not translate directly into immediate emission reductions. Preparing for sea level rise and weather events, for instance, factor into Chinese infrastructure development, urban resilience and rural investment planning. But adaptive efforts tend to release more emissions, not less. Likewise, investments in sustainable technologies, like batteries and electric vehicles, help keep carbon out of the air in the long run but manufacturing them is carbon-intensive in the present.

These investments, flawed as they may be, serve broader national development goals and give Chinese companies an edge in an emerging market for climate technologies. Investment is also more palatable to citizens who are reticent to forfeit consumption and the development opportunities of today as a way to mitigate the climate consequences of tomorrow. Chinese citizens also care about climate change, however, and the challenge for the international community moving forward could involve figuring out how to engage that vast audience on why the urgency of climate change requires immediate sacrifices as well as long-term investments. That might be one way to reach the ears of China’s leaders.

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Dimitar Gueorguiev, a current Wilson China Fellow, is associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He is the author of “Retrofitting Leninism: Participation without Democracy in China” (Oxford University Press, 2021) and co-author (with Jonathan Stromseth and Edmund Malesky) of China’s Governance Puzzle (Cambridge University Press, 2017).