All change? US–China climate politics after the US election

Expert panellists debate how the world’s two biggest emitters can rebuild their relationship on climate action

On 18 November, following a turbulent presidential election season, China Dialogue gathered a panel of experts to discuss the future of US–China climate politics. Coinciding with London Climate Action Week 2020, the panel addressed questions including whether a new US president will usher in a transformation in China–US cooperation, the limits of executive action on climate diplomacy and how we can harness cooperative and competitive dynamics in the midst of a currently fraught relationship.

Parts of the video and the quotes below have been edited for clarity.


Sam Geall (chair), Executive Director, China Dialogue
David Vance Wagner, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Energy Foundation China
Li Shuo, Senior Global Policy Advisor, Greenpeace East Asia
Alex Wang, Professor of Law at University of California, UCLA Law
Bernice Lee, Executive Director of the Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy, Chatham House

Some interesting excerpts

Vance Wagner

08:21: “I think most forms of cooperation […] will be very difficult in the near term. But what is possible is dialogue, and lots of it. Dialogues on pathways to carbon neutrality, on respective domestic policy progress, on governance within the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement, on finance and economic recovery, sub-national action […] US–China climate dialogue doesn’t mean we agree on everything, and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t vociferously arguing about other things in other channels. What it does mean is that we’re serious about the threat of climate change and the need for the world’s two largest economies and emitters to find common ground.”

Over 40%

of the world’s carbon emissions come from the US and China

29:40: “It’s critical that the Biden-Harris administration embeds climate expertise and climate leadership throughout the federal government. This means not just having strong climate champions at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Energy or in the White House, but making sure we have people with climate expertise, climate ambition and climate credibility throughout all of the other agencies of [the] federal government.” 

56:30: “Trust isn’t naturally created; trust is deliberately created through regular engagement and listening. At the most basic level, American’s need to be aware that the most toxic narrative within China is that America is only pushing China to take climate action or even to limit overseas investment because it’s some sort of strategy of American containment of China, or America’s jealousy of China, or America’s inability to cope with a rising China. The climate conversation has to be divorced from that if we’re going to have this trust and dialogue that’s based on mutual interests.” 

Li Shuo

13:19: “The US accumulated a lot of climate ambition deficit over the past four years under the Trump administration, so it is backsliding from its 2015 commitments. Whereas China is on track or even overachieving some of its commitments. We can have a separate discussion about whether what the Chinese or the US offered in the first place was ambitious enough, but from a diplomatic and political point of view, there is an interesting asymmetry in the sense that the US is not delivering its commitment and China is doing more.” 

15:08: “When we talk about US-China climate engagement, we are talking about an issue that is larger than the environment. We are talking about essentially the biggest challenge of our time from a geo-political point of view.” 

39:35: “[Domestic coal power plant construction] does not make environmental sense of course. It does not make climate sense because it will just add more carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Most importantly it does not make economic sense anymore, and this is the key difference between now and a few years ago. The reason why those coal power plants will become stranded assets is that the country has already managed to get more coal power fleet than it needs.”

Alex Wang

20:26: “I would love to see if China in the near-term can implement more specific targets: carbon caps, tougher ramp-downs on coal, removals of any policies that will create perverse incentives. Early draft rules on the carbon trading market in China suggest some possibility of subsidies for efficient coal, which is not what we want when we’re heading towards a world of carbon neutrality. In the US we’re in a very exciting time. We have an administration that’s talking about climate change and embedding climate change in areas that are not only environmental: bringing all parts of the government in and potentially creating a national climate council… Maybe building institutions that are climate oriented will help sustain [global climate action] throughout subsequent administrations.”  

34:23: “There is much more support [in the US] for global climate action than most people realise… There was aPew poll on this about half a year ago that says two-thirds of Americans think the government needs to do more on climate change, 83% of Americans support alternative energy. More than half of Republicans support a variety of policies. It’s worth emphasising that point.” 

22:48: “My view is that the most important thing is to see strong action domestically in each country sending the signal that these countries, in their own interests – for both the environment, the jobs and the economy – are moving forward.”

Bernice Lee

26:18: “What a [race-to-the-top approach for climate standards] requires, is setting high ambitious standards, clear time-frames, transparent rules, but also a very clear criteria for achievement.”

26:45: “We have to really take a clear-eyed look in terms of how best to harness trade-related rules to deliver the kind of low-carbon, low-cost options that we know are possible on the one side; but on the other, making sure the more contentious elements – for example related to border carbon adjustments – are discussed within the context of the need for a level playing-field and open, rules-bound trading system that actually can also deliver climate action.”

51:04: “If you think shaming [China] is important (which it could be in certain circumstances) then in some sense you are focusing on your domestic audience more so than what the collaborative undertaking would be […] If there is a lesson to be learned, it is to recognise the intrinsic connectivity between domestic action and ambition internationally and how they feed back and forth from each other.” 

1:01:46: “We must focus on the big picture. Not just on the governmental relationship but also on all of the different connective tissues, whether it’s the subnational actors, businesses, NGOs or think-tanks that are going to be a very big part of framing the next generation of solutions and also US–China relations.”