Past, present, and future of China-U.S. climate cooperation

What significant changes Xi's words foreshadow?

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced on April 21 that at the invitation of U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping will “attend and deliver an important speech at the Leaders Summit on Climate in Beijing on April 22 through video link.”

Here’s Xi’s speech (ENG).

This marks the second time the two leaders speak to each other since Biden took office and the first public setting where the two leaders speak.

This newsletter will take a close look at what Xi said in his speech, offer some context on the China-U.S. climate cooperation and illustrate what dynamics are likely at play going forward.

Key takeaways include:

  • Xi raises 6 principles for climate cooperation

  • Xi lays out concrete policy steps for achieving climate goals, ushering significant changes to key industries

  • Both countries have seen golden times for climate change, but the Trump administration and the ensuing bilateral relationship fallout chucked that out of the window

  • Both countries look to climate cooperation as one of the main propellers of bilateral relationships but regaining mutual trust and resuming meaningful cooperation will take time

  • After the Trump administration ditched the Paris climate agreement, China feels that Washington has some “catching up“ to do, to regain equal footings with Beijing on climate cooperation



Xi Jinping spends the major part of his speech on China’s 6 principles for climate cooperation. The six principles are:


We must be committed to harmony between man and nature, to green development, to systemic governance, to a people-centered approach, to multilateralism, to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

The most targeted principle among the 6 is probably the last two, with regard to multilateralism and common but differentiated responsibilities.

Under the paragraph for multilateralism, Xi called on the international community to cooperate under the framework of existing agreements, and particularly a pointed sentence that called back memories of the U.S. exit from the Paris agreement under the Trump administration.


In this process, we must join hands, not point fingers at each other; we must maintain continuity, not reverse course easily; and we must honor commitments, not go back on promises.

Last but least, Xi raised the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, basically arguing that developed countries should more responsibilities in terms of battling climate changes and helping developing countries with investment, technology, and infrastructure.


We must be committed to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is the cornerstone of global climate governance. Developing countries now face multiple challenges to combat COVID-19, grow the economy, and address climate change. We need to give full recognition to developing countries' contribution to climate action and accommodate their particular difficulties and concerns. Developed countries need to increase climate ambition and action. At the same time, they need to make concrete efforts to help developing countries strengthen the capacity and resilience against climate change, support them in financing, technology, and capacity building, and refrain from creating green trade barriers, so as to help developing countries accelerate the transition to green and low-carbon development.

Your host felt a sense of Chinese exeptionalism in Xi’s words, in which China as a developing country should by principle shoulder less responsibility than developed countries, but is instead committing to higher standards.


China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinarily hard efforts from China.

Xi then listed some of the steps China plans to take to achieve that goal. Given the gravity of the issue, the policies must have been carefully contemplated before being announced.


The targets of carbon peak and carbon neutrality have been added to China's overall plan for ecological conservation. We are now making an action plan and are already taking strong nationwide actions toward carbon peak. Support is being given to peaking pioneers from localities, sectors and companies. China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period. Moreover, China has decided to accept the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol and tighten regulations over non-carbon dioxide emissions. China's national carbon market will also start trading.

Let’s take a look at Xi’s words, sentence by sentence.


The targets of carbon peak and carbon neutrality have been added to China's overall plan for ecological conservation.

生态文明建设,ecological civilization construction is one part of “五位一体” , or economic, political, cultural, social and ecological progress, are the five pillars of socialism with Chinese characteristics as determined during the 18th party congress.

Absorbing peak carbon and carbon neutrality into this overarching literature signals that Beijing is completely committed to this goal, not unlike its commitment to eliminated absolute poverty this year.


We are now making an action plan and are already taking strong nationwide actions toward carbon peak.

The action plan made an appearance last December when Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) official Wang Jinnan said called on the expedited formulation of such an action plan. It then reoccured in the 2021 government work report released during this years’ two sessions.


Support is being given to peaking pioneers from localities, sectors and companies.

An MEE paper published in January made reference to “key industries”


Encourage key sectors such as energy, industry, transportation, and construction to develop specific plans to reach the peak carbon. Have key industries such as steel, building materials, non-ferrous metals, chemicals, petrochemicals, electricity, and coal put forward clear peak targets and develop peak action plans.

The same paper also mentioned carrying out pilot programs in certain regions to achieve carbon peak.


Actively promote some regions and industries for early and pilot implementation. Support places and industries that have the conditions to reach the peak of carbon emissions, promote places that have already reached the peak to further reduce carbon emissions, and support places with a better foundation to explore pilot demonstrations of near-zero carbon emissions and carbon neutrality. Select typical cities and regions to carry out pilot demonstrations of air quality compliance and carbon emission peaking.

The paper does not name specific regions, but one indicator for regions with “better foundation" is the seven cities and provinces that have been cleared to set up carbon trading centers in 2011, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Hubei, Guangdong, and Shenzhen.

Recently some local governments have been pledging to carbon-reducing plans, Shanghai pledged to reach a carbon peak by 2025, 5 years ahead of China’s national goal, while Sichuan, Guangdong, and Hainan also included language on reducing carbon emission in their official development plans.


China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period.

China has already entered its 14th Five-Year plan period, with the 15th Five-Year Plan period covering the second half of this decade. That is to say, China’s consumption of coal will peak sometime between 2026 and 2030.

The top-down initiative to go green could have a significant impact on the above industries and regions, and it is certainly the hope of the Chinese government that the green initiative can become a major booster for the Chinese economy going forward.

In addition to the more ambitious goal of reaching peak carbon and carbon neutrality sooner, Xi also said China is already helping other lesser developed countries in battling climate change.


From remote sensing satellites for climate monitoring in Africa to low-carbon demonstration zones in Southeast Asia and to energy-efficient lights in small island countries

Here is the report of a low-carbon demonstration zone in Laos.

【2】The second part of the newsletter will take a look back at China-U.S. climate cooperation in the past and its current and future dynamic. In this part, Jiafei offers some of his personal insights.


The summit comes about one week after Chinese and U.S. envoys for climate change met in the Chinese city of Shanghai for discussion on bilateral cooperation on the issue. Almost concurrently with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry’s stay in China, Xi attended a video summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on cooperation in areas including climate change.

After the meetings between the two countries’ climate envoys wrapped up, a “strong” joint statement, as called by Kerry, was issued. Your host would like to note that though China-U.S. dialogues on climate change dated back to earlier years in the 21st century, the joint statement issued after Kerry’s China trip was only the fourth one. A close look at the wording and comparison with its predecessors left an impression on your host that we are witnessing new dynamics in China-U.S. cooperation on dealing with climate change.

China-U.S. cooperation on climate change has indeed seen golden times around the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement, when the bilateral relationship was by and large cordial.

China and the United States issued their first joint statement on climate change in November 2014, in which the two sides put forward clearly their emission reduction targets and specific cooperation plans.

“The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030,” both sides agreed then.

“Intense diplomacy between Beijing and Washington subsequently facilitated the breakthrough agreement announced in December 2015 at the UN’s Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21), where 194 countries adopted a major universal, legally binding global climate accord,” a Georgetown University study on U.S.-China cooperation on climate change commented.

The two sides issued the China-U.S. Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change, the second one, in September 2015, putting their weight behind the Paris Climate Conference and the reaching of an ambitious global accord on climate change. Your host would like to point out that after the first statement in 2014, China-U.S. communication appeared to be very smooth and clear about how the two sides can work together to get the Paris Agreement passed.

The third joint statement came in March 2016, also a joint presidential statement, in which the two sides called cooperation in tackling climate change “a pillar of the U.S.- China bilateral relationship,” and concluded that “the joint efforts by China and the United States on climate change will serve as an enduring legacy of the partnership between our two countries.”

While disagreements and competition had always been existing between Washington and Beijing, and the concept of the “Group of Two” was far from being settled and agreed on, your host would like to note that at least in combating climate change, the three joint statements around the signing of the Paris Agreement had shown to some degree “co-governance” between China and the United States.


As you may already know, bilateral cooperation between Beijing and Washington came to a sudden and almost comprehensive halt during Donald Trump’s administration. What was worse, mutual trust between China and the United States has been severely damaged.

As the scope of China-U.S. cooperation continues to diminish in the post-Trump era, many observers, including your host, continue to see climate change as a rare spot where China-U.S. collaboration is more than possible.

However, in its early days in office, the Biden administration has on many occasions proclaimed that the United States intends to “engage China from a position of strength.” Washington is also eager to regain its leadership on global issues, including climate change, after Washington’s disengagement during the Trump administration. On the other hand, Washington tends to believe that, as described by The New York Times, it is confronted with “an emboldened Beijing leadership that thinks the United States has lagged behind.”

your host would like to note that the two sides may have set divergent goals for the Shanghai negotiations.

While it is safe to speculate that by sending Kerry to China, the Biden administration felt urgent to press China to come up with tougher emission-reduction targets, as it did in 2014, ahead of the summit to prove the clout of Washington in front of the world, the intention did not appear to succeed.

For the Chinese side, Kerry’s trip to China, the first by a senior official in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, represented “reopening such a channel for dialogue and cooperation between China and the United States on climate change,” Su Wei, a member of the Chinese negotiation team, told the Chinese TV network CCTV. In other words, the Chinese side regards Kerry’s trip as among the first steps to bring China-U.S. cooperation on climate change into the right track.


Although the joint statement issued last week after Kerry’s China trip is structurally similar to the first China-U.S. joint statement on climate change issued in 2014, it fell short of scoring concrete achievements. Your host would like to note several findings.

Firstly, In the 2014 joint statement, both sides set out stronger targets for reducing emissions than before, directly influencing the international negotiations on climate change. But the statement issued last week only said that “both countries intend to develop by COP 26 in Glasgow their respective long-term strategies aimed at net-zero GHG emissions/carbon neutrality.”

While Washington sees the possible friction with China on climate change affairs through the geopolitical prism of China challenging U.S. leadership, your host would like to offer another potential viewpoint for his readers: instead of challenging U.S. leadership in solving a global crisis, Beijing is challenging Washington to take more concrete measures to prove its restored commitment to climate change.

In a recent interview with AP, Chinese Vice Minister Le Yucheng said as follows:

“Under the Trump administration, the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement, which caused serious disruptions to international climate efforts. Now that President Biden has announced the U.S. return, we welcome that. Since the United States has come back, it shall stay and redouble its efforts to make up for the time lost during its absence. We expect the United States to do more on climate change. ”

When pushed by the AP reporter what would China like to see the United States redoubling its efforts in climate cooperation because of the time lost after Trump withdrew from the Paris accord, Le answered as follows:

“The United States could at least do one thing, that is to provide more technological and financial support to help upgrade the energy structure in developing countries. Lead by example, instead of blaming and scapegoating China.”

Secondly, the 2014 China-U.S. joint statement on climate change emphasized the two countries’ joint efforts to advance global negotiations; This time, the emphasis is on solving problems within the framework of the Paris Agreement and increasing multilateral cooperation.

Despite the Trump administration’s relentless assaults on the multilateral mechanism, ironically speaking, it had instead raised the global consensus on upholding multilateral cooperation. Also, governments around the world, including Beijing, have witnessed how partisan division on such policies as climate change can turn the incumbent U.S. administration against its predecessor. Given the capricious nature of U.S. policy on climate change, it is reasonable to expect China to seek multilateral channels, including talks with European governments, to promote the climate change cause.

Thirdly, while the 2014 joint statement put forward many specific cooperation measures, especially increasing cooperation in energy and energy-saving technologies, this time, no specific measures have been taken.

Fourthly, unlike Washington who did lag behind in climate change under the Trump administration, Beijing has remained proactive and ambitious in recent years in its campaign to tackle climate change.

In his speech at the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity last September, Chinese President Xi surprised the world by announcing that China “ will adopt even more forceful policies and measures and strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

Again in December last year, in his speech at Climate Ambition Summit, Xi articulated detailed steps to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

According to him, China will lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65 percent from the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25 percent, increase the forest stock volume by 6 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level, and bring its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2 billion kilowatts.

This newsletter is penned by Lu Jiafei, a contributor of Beijing Channel, and Liu Yang, its founder. Zhao Wencai also contributed to the writing.