Working together, China and the US can provide much-needed leadership for the global imperative of carbon neutrality

The world’s 195 nations have tended to believe they sail on 195 separate boats. We didn’t need to worry if another boat caught fire. Today, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has taught us the lesson that we live in 195 cabins on one global ship. We all need to take care of the ship, because if a fire breaks out, no cabin is safe.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, we need to face the biggest challenge threatening the global ship today: Global warming and the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems. We will only add to the crisis if we fight one another while the ship is sinking. There are no lifeboats available, we need to keep the ship afloat.

The past week saw the world taking action to steady the ship.

US President Joe Biden hosted 40 world leaders on April 22, Earth Day, at which he pledged the United States will slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to half the 2005 levels. Biden has also proposed an ambitious green infrastructure plan for the US.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will start phasing down coal consumption from 2026, reconfirming China’s decarbonization ambitions, highlighting the much shorter time span of China’s ambitious shift from carbon peak to net zero compared to that of many developed countries.

Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, the European Union and other participants also either enhanced or reconfirmed their climate ambitions.

In the run-up to this summit there was a meeting between Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change affairs, and his US counterpart John Kerry in Shanghai. They confirmed that both countries will take actions to maximize international support for the transition away from fossil fuel-based energy to renewables in developing countries. That is extremely inspiring for realizing a Green Belt & Road.

I worked closely with Minister Xie during many endless nights of climate negotiations. He was the star of the talks, gaining respect from all quarters. John Kerry, similarly dedicated, once told us how his father introduced him to the wonders of nature on the beautiful American east coast from a very early age.

The global ship needs seasoned sailors to navigate the oceans. It also needs the twin forces of cooperation and competition as its two engines.

Competition is an essential driver of change. The cost of solar energy is down 90 percent from just 10 years ago, due to competition partly between companies and partly between China, India and the rest of the world.

In the $2 trillion infrastructure plan he announced, President Biden plans to encourage US citizens and automakers to switch to electric vehicles. In Germany, Volkswagen just said the time of the combustion engine is over. It will go all electric. Shanghai in April hosted the 2021 auto fair, showcasing brand new electric vehicles from BYD, Geely and Dongfeng, among other big names. New players such as Huawei, Didi and Xiaomi are piling into this industry increasing the competition.

On the other hand, the world also needs cooperation between the most powerful countries to address cross-border issues and provide global leadership. China and US are much stronger together than each of them is separately. We need global rules for shipping and aviation to avoid unfair competition. It’s great for global green finance that the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank, just announced it will work with the EU on common environmental standards.

When Chinese scientists determined the novel coronavirus genetic sequence last January and provided it to the world, it took three hours for a lab in the US to put it through computer technology and design a vaccine. The crazy idea of tech decoupling will just make us all weaker and poorer.

In his keynote speech via video link at the Boao Forum for Asia, President Xi stressed a Green Belt & Road, citing the Belt & Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition as a platform for multilateral cooperation. Recently the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment endorsed the coalition’s classification system that puts projects into color-coded categories according to their potential impact on the environment, climate and biodiversity.

With cooperation between countries, wonders can be done.

We cannot expect the US and China to agree on everything. The US and the West will continue to criticize China on issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. China will answer pointing to racism in the US and its endless wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Libya and many other parts of the world.

The meeting in Anchorage where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan started criticizing China was illustrative. The majority of Westerners may think the US side won the war of words, while most people in the developing world similarly may believe China scored a victory and taught the US a good lesson.

A better perspective is that we all lose from such exchanges. They don’t help us get something done. We should rather focus on the common issues we need to solve, treat each other with respect, accept differences and invite dialogue on issues where there will continue to be diverging views.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ping-pong diplomacy that led to the historic visit of US former president Richard Nixon and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to China in 1972. It opened a new chapter in the US-China relationship by focusing on joint deliveries rather than areas of disagreement. China and the US today should turn joint climate leadership into the ballast for our global ship.

President Xi said in his Boao speech that “by setting sail together, we could ride the wind, break the waves, and brave the journey of ten thousand miles”. If the US and China can maintain the good momentum for cooperation on climate change, the world will thank them for their bravery in breaking the waves.

Author: Erik Solheim, President of Belt & Road Initiative Green Development Institute and Former Executive Director of the United Nation Environment Programme.
Editor’s note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.