Decoding the COP26’s “surprise deal”

Four centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau spun a tale of a stag hunt in pre-historic times.

Primitive hunters, banded together by necessity, see their collective hunting endeavour ruined by a companion gone rogue. International Relations scholars claim that Rousseau’s tragic tale epitomises the dilemma of international cooperation. Even when there is a perceived common interest, it is in human nature to follow one’s self-interest, and the constant risk of defection undermines the entire collective effort. 

Past and present climate negotiations are haunted by the stag hunt tale’s frightful conclusion. Both China and the US, the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters, have shied away from their responsibilities in the past. Once more, agreements have been reached and targets set; and no less, a “surprise agreement” between China and the US, recognising the insufficiency of current commitments and pledging to reduce methane emissions. The history of China’s involvement in past negotiations promised little hope for improvement, however. While it doesn’t shy away from domestic climate action; and far from being the only culprit behind COP26’s disappointments, the CCP was once again stoic in the face of international efforts to reach binding agreements. 

Are climate negotiations part of the new Cold War?

Like each year, the CIA has released its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a prospective report that identifies key threats to US national security. The 2021 version, published last month, has focussed solely on climate change, a first-ever. If the White House heeds its intelligence community’s call, it may just mean that the US now considers climate change a national security threat. On paper, this is a positive development: if the US mobilised against global warming on a fitting scale, efforts to reduce emissions would get a substantial boost. 

It seems indeed that Joe Biden has stepped up the US’s game in climate action, attempting to make up for the previous administration’s debacle. In a White House climate summit for world leaders earlier this year, he unveiled new ambitious targets for domestic greenhouse gas emissions, claiming that the USA “is ready to reclaim a leadership role on climate change”. Current estimations, however, tarnish the advertised goodwill of the Biden administration. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent climate analysis, calculates that policies in the US are insufficient to reach the domestic 2°C target, needing “substantial improvements”. Most critical is the US’s stance on climate finance: investments abroad keep propping up fossil fuels, when there is a strong need for shoring up international climate finance and phasing out fossil fuels from portfolios. 

But while the US and the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions are already receding, China’s and India’s are still on the rise. This comparison, of course, needs a caveat. Their economies have industrialized later than the West, and in previous climate negotiations, the argument was made that their economies would need to decarbonize in their own time, although this sparked protest from developed countries. To that effect, agreements have often included the goal to “peak emissions”, a goal China committed to reach in 2030 at the Paris summit of 2015. The NIE’s conclusion, however, is that China shows no effort to reach that target. Measures to make good by the commitment were absent from the CCP’s 14th Five-year plan for 2021-2025, a key document outlining economic policy for the foreseeable future.

The NIE suggests that this asymmetry will grow diplomatically unsustainable. Holding the largest emitters accountable is the most efficient solution to reducing global warming; but a lack of transparency and enforcement mechanisms means that it will be up to international relations for actors to hold each other accountable. This means the ebb-and-flow of diplomacy, negotiation, and conflict may well play the role of enforcement of climate commitments. Of course, the CIA’s picking on China specifically is not devoid of influence by the atmosphere of military and economic competition between the two countries, and the intelligence service’s role in the ongoing “cold war”. Whether the US chooses to confront China about climate change can only be a product of a larger foreign policy. Whether this proves effective or catastrophic is currently anyone’s guess, but as long as enforcement of climate action is insufficient, we should expect such measures to become commonplace. US-China relations thus seem set on a collision course, and we may already be seeing the first hostile exchanges. 

COP26 has been the stage of an international blame game. It started with dire prospects for Chinese efforts. On the eve of the Glasgow summit, power shortages forced Beijing to shore up coal production, sparking outrage and cynical remarks across the world. Its refusal to join the pledge to phase out domestic coal has not helped redress its image. Some argue that China improved transparency respective to previous summits, and while it is a step forward, Beijing’s efforts are disappointing even from a conservative point of view. Nevertheless, President Biden publicly denounced the absence of President Xi, saying it discredited China from having “any leadership mantle”. Meanwhile, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said the US had “already wasted five years” with the Trump presidency, pinning blame for insufficient efforts on other nations. After such rough exchanges, the “surprise deal” announced on the closing day of the summit could not have been more aptly named. 

Neither side is exactly entitled to pin blame on the other. While China’s current trend of carbon emissions seems marginally more catastrophic than the US’s, the latter haven’t been much more effective at, or willing to meet their commitments. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent climate analysis, shows that the Biden administration’s policies are insufficient to reach the domestic 2°C target, needing “substantial improvements”. Suffice it to say that after rough verbal exchanges at the Glasgow summit, the “surprise deal” announced on the closing day of the summit could not have been more aptly named. 

China’s style: low-risk commitments, high-impact communication

Will this deal change much in the way of China-US relations, and more importantly, does it represent a milestone in cooperation between the two countries? The evidence suggests otherwise. This is not China’s first international climate summit. Previous meetings, like the Copenhagen summit of 2009, set a precedent that may help us understand China’s stances on climate change, even in today’s context. A study of China’s negotiating style has identified its main goals in previous climate negotiations: phasing out carbon emissions, only when consistent with economic plans to make industry more efficient; cooperating with the world, only insofar as this would bring in foreign aid to boost economic development. Business-as-usual for China’s foreign policy: agreeing to international action, whether on climate or anything else, as long as it aligns with domestic interest.

It is true that the CCP identifies climate change as a threat to national security, long-term growth and energy security. China is far from being a climate-denying State, and to that extent its diplomatic efforts are truthful. But it has made very clear that when it comes to protecting its interests, it will choose a course of action by itself, conceding only what suits its domestic plans. The Glasgow summit once again showcased this position: refusing to join the agreement to reduce methane emissions by 30%, one of the summit’s flagship achievements, it has announced it will come up with its own domestic initiative. In short, China doesn’t see climate change as a collective problem, but as a domestic threat with international origins. 

Cooperation is the only way to get this job done”, John Kerry stated about the deal. But with no provision for accountability of either side, the agreement simply amounts to a statement of intent, and while it brings some new commitments to the table, like cutting methane emissions (a first for China), it doesn’t amount to much novelty. It simply states what could already be surmised from the publication of the NIE this year, and previous trends in Chinese policymaking: both states genuinely see climate change as a sizable threat. But, notwithstanding Kerry’s, and others’ declarations, it is unclear at best that this means cooperation between otherwise rival superpowers. 

At the end of the day, the Biden administration is engaged in a domestic battle for legitimacy, of which climate is a key pillar in efforts to reverse the course set by the Trump administration. The stakes of climate negotiations are not limited to halting global warming, but form part of the White House’s domestic political agenda: climate action is an integral part of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, aiming at economic and social reforms. While not representing much in the way of appeasement with China, the deal could also be seen as a reversal of Trump’s antagonisation of the superpower. Biden has much to tackle in the domestic sphere, and Kerry’s enthusiasm about the deal should be seen in this light rather than as a fundamental change in US, or indeed Chinese foreign policy. 

Beyond politics: why China needs to be opted in

Progress in climate action will not happen without China’s concurrence, however. It has the technological and industrial upper hand in several key areas, allowing it to concretely tackle climate change. It is estimated that China has over half of the world’s processing capability for materials crucial to energy transition, like rare earth minerals; and they are world-leading in the production of advanced grid components crucial in implementing solar and wind power plants. What’s more, it has a willingness to leverage this supremacy to assert its leadership status in the international system. Prof. Stephanie Balme, dean of the Sciences Po Bachelor College and former counselor for scientific cooperation at the French embassy in Beijing, asserted in an interview earlier this year that China has plans to become the leading scientific power by 2049, but that it will need to become more open to international cooperation to accede to this status. This may mean China could lead the charge in green innovations; but more importantly, it will need to cooperate with foreign counterparts to share knowledge and jointly define directions for research if it wants to fulfill its ambitions. Every challenge we are facing invites further cooperation with China; but the CCP has made clear it will set its own agenda, not the West. 

One may be tempted to define the current paradigm of US-China relations over climate change, not as “common interests”, but “shared self-interests”. One could go further down this perilous road and apply Adam Smith’s adage of self-interests serving the common good. But this approach provides no guarantee: there is no shortage of political will or strategic thinking, there is a shortage of accountability. Indeed, One must remember the stag hunt: as long as we don’t all agree on and stick to a common, cooperative strategy, there will always be rogue hunters to undermine the common good.