EU-US-China Climate Talks: Sudden Outbreak of Cooperation? - Selin Kumbaracı


In the wake of US President Joe Biden's upcoming (virtual) climate summit, which will bring together 40 heads of state and government on April 22-23 to discuss increasing national climate targets, there has been a revitalization of cooperation between the major actors involved in climate change. This renewed sense of coordination is especially evident when it comes to the US and EU's relations with China.

Prior to the summit that is being organized by Biden, there was also a trilateral video conference between Germany, France, and China—which the Chinese side strategically referred to as a 'summit' in what seemed to be an attempt to undercut Biden's coming summit. Climate was discussed during the call but was not the only matter on the agenda, as emphasized by the Europeans.

Such engagement with China is mostly seen as being necessary, given the greenhouse gas emissions of China accounting for over 25% of global emissions—making China the largest emitter. Nonetheless, this engagement doesn't come without its political risks, especially for Merkel and Macron in the European context, given the recent retaliatory sanction imposed by China on a number of EU officials and MEPs.

Additionally, while the EU and US have been trying to get China to raise the level of ambition that is present in its climate targets, it is unclear whether or not a definitive announcement from China will come on this matter by the start of Biden's summit. Indeed, many have expressed that even if such an announcement were to come, it would take place in a setting more appealing to Beijing's domestic audience than a summit organized by the US—which would also amount to a US diplomatic victory.

There are various obstacles, of course, standing in the way of further cooperation on climate action between the EU-US bloc and China. Of the two main issues that the Western duo has highlighted, the first relates to how the EU and US are pushing for China to set an earlier date by which its emissions will have peaked; the current timeline sets this date as 2030, but the two Western powers would like to see this peak coming much sooner—by 2025.

The second issue that can be seen is that of financial support granted to new fossil fuel projects. The US has indicated its wish for China to halt its funding of new coal plants—in particular—both domestically and abroad, especially through its Belt and Road Initiative. Biden has especially phrased this as relating to 'carbon-intensive' projects so that natural gas, which the US is a major exporter of, is given more flexibility.

While the US itself is moving away from funding new coal projects, this is not very meaningful without getting China on board as well; in fact, it may play against US interests if it makes it so that China is now the major financer of such projects in developing countries, increasing its influence over such nations.

The carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) that the EU is making plans to develop is a major issue for the Chinese side. The CBAM would target imports from countries that do not have as strict climate regulations, such as commensurate carbon prices, as the EU by placing a carbon cost on their exports to the EU. As Chinese President Xi Jinping has expressed, "Tackling climate change is the common cause of all mankind and should not become an excuse for geopolitics, attacking other countries or trade barriers."

There are; however, additional issues standing in the way of cooperation on climate with China that are not directly related to climate. The EU and US see climate action as a rare arena of potential cooperation with China, especially in the midst of sensitive disagreements regarding human rights concerns in Xinjiang, trade practices, and protection of intellectual property.

For China, though, these issues are not so easy to separate. In the words of a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry, "cooperation cannot stand unaffected by the overall China-U.S. relations. It is impossible to ask for China's support in global affairs while interfering in its domestic affairs and undermining its interests."