A True Climate Emergency Calls For Combatting Chinese Pollution With Trump-style Tactics

Wald Wednesday

Dr. Ellen Wald is back for her weekly column.

Yesterday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report warning that global carbon dioxide emissions are on track to increase by 5% this year.  The organization predicts that emissions will increase by 1.5 billion tonnes and this will be the “largest single increase in more than a decade.” 

This sounds dreadfully scary, but a look at the actual numbers reveals that this is just hyperbole. In fact, the IEA predicts that global carbon dioxide emissions in 2021 will be less than the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted in 2019. The only reason the IEA can say that the world is seeing such a large increase is because the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 resulted in a similarly large decline in emissions.

The interesting part of the IEA’s report is not its prediction for total carbon emissions in 2021, but where it sees these emissions originating. According to the IEA report, a significant part of this emissions growth will come from coal. Coal consumption is expected to grow by 4.5%, driven in large part by Asia and especially China. Coal is expected to make up a larger segment of global energy demand in 2021 than it did before the pandemic. This is where the Biden administration should be taking a hard look at its current climate strategy.

We know that China is currently the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. We know that China brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power online in 2020 and currently has another 247 gigawatts of coal power under development. We also know that China doesn’t actually intend to curb its emissions to change its emissions trajectory, despite commitments to reach peak carbon emissions in 2030 and achieve “net zero” in 2060. In fact, Chinese officials admit that at President Biden’s virtual Climate Summit later this week, they plan to send a “positive message” but privately acknowledge that reducing emissions is “not very realistic” for China.

If the Biden administration is truly serious about combatting carbon emissions—both at home and globally—then the administration should admit that its current strategy won’t work. A real commitment to combatting today’s so-called “climate emergency” would look more like Trump’s China strategy than Biden’s current diplomatic initiatives. 

Trump won the election in 2016 in part because he promised to fight China’s unfair trade practices with America’s full economic and diplomatic weight. His administration put tariffs on Chinese products and China fought back with tariffs of its own. China canceled orders for American grains, soybeans and other commodities. The trade war was painful for companies and farmers, but the Trump administration didn’t give in. Ultimately, this resulted in negotiations and a deal in which China made some concessions.

Trump treated the trade issue like a serious crisis that called on corporations and some individuals to make real, though temporary, sacrifices. In contrast, the Biden administration is treating the world’s primary polluter with kid gloves. They are also asking Americans to make real sacrifices (the U.S. is the second-largest carbon polluter) but demanding nothing comparable from the Chinese. Instead of sending Climate Envoy John Kerry to negotiate meaningless statements with his Chinese counterpart, perhaps, if the Biden team is serious about climate, they need to take a bold risk and throw America’s economic, diplomatic and military strength behind its words.

If the current climate situation warrants the “emergency” label, then the U.S. needs to use strong-arm tactics to hold China to account. This could include threatening China with actual consequences, like tariffs, sanctions and even blockades to push China to make tangible commitments to reduce its coal use. Of course, the U.S. would have to be willing to follow through on its threats to enforce China’s adherence. But if Americans are actually as committed to saving the planet from carbon dioxide as the government says the country is, then the U.S. should be willing to accept the temporary hardships which will result from a tough negotiation to ensure a better outcome for the planet. 

The end game of such a strategy doesn’t have to be the sublimation of China’s economic progress. In fact, it could result in a positive economic deal for both sides. The Trump administration’s tariffs brought China to the negotiating table and resulted in a trade deal that helped both parties, even if neither side got everything they wanted. The ultimate strategy here should be to help China reduce its coal consumption by negotiating long-term contracts for stable and relatively inexpensive supplies of natural gas from the U.S. and other gas-producing countries. 

If the Biden administration isn’t willing to use strong-arm tactics on China when it comes to climate, then we have to conclude that the Biden team isn’t really interested in saving the planet. And if they aren’t interested in saving the planet, then what other purpose do all of the “clean energy,” and “climate friendly” policies serve? After all, they are proposing to spend trillions of dollars on climate policies. The answer, cynically, is that most of this money will go towards enriching themselves, their friends, friendly companies and friendly organizations. And the “climate emergency” will remain for as long as it is useful to those in power.