Big powers face off in ‘high adrenaline’ game of climate chicken

It’s crunch time for the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Next Thursday and Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden will host 40 world leaders at a virtual summit where he has asked them to increase their national climate goals. 

Ahead of that, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is in Shanghai, huddled with his old Chinese sparring partner Xie Zhenhua. 

On Friday, President Xi Jinping of China will speak with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, in what Beijing has dubbed a climate “summit” — although the Europeans insist it’s more of a “regular” chat.

Also on that day, Biden will host Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House, amid reports the latter plans to raise his country’s 2030 emissions cutting target.

The U.S. has said it will announce its own new pledge ahead of Thursday’s summit. There is growing pressure on it to match its claims of leadership with a target that would see its emissions cut in half by 2030 counting from 2005. India, Canada and South Korea are all being leaned on by the Biden administration.

Chinese riddle

No country is more complex or critical than China, which emits more than a quarter of global greenhouse gases and has the superpower status to match. The EU and U.S. are trying to convince Beijing to set a 2025 date to cap its pollution growth instead of 2030 — and for it to stop building new coal plants at home and abroad.

“All eyes right now are on whether China is going to step up,” said Jennifer Tollmann, senior policy adviser at the E3G think tank.

This week’s sudden outbreak of coordination between great powers is a “high adrenaline major power play on climate,” said Bernice Lee, founding director of the Hoffmann Centre at Chatham House.

“The fact that these high level engagements are arranged will hopefully enhance the chance of a higher climate ambition from China over the next few days,” said Li Shuo, a China expert with Greenpeace.

Despite those hopes, observers warn China might also announce nothing, or something disappointing — like last month when Beijing failed to give details on how to achieve its climate goals under its latest Five-Year Plan.

From China’s perspective, climate dialogues have taken a central role in its foreign policy amid sharpening disagreements with the West on other areas, from the tech race to human rights, from military assertiveness to economic policies.

China is intent on framing itself as the equal of the U.S. — especially when it comes to climate, where the U.S. has proven an unreliable partner. “Kerry invite shows China’s climate governance ambition,” read the headline on the state-run Global Times newspaper.

If Xi decides to set a new goal, it will be on his terms, said Lee. “Like everyone else China will make the announcement in a setting that plays well domestically. Not sure if the Biden summit fits the bill.”

Summit or no summit?

Into that theater on Thursday stepped — or stumbled — Macron and Merkel.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a press conference on Thursday: “Upon the invitation of France’s President Macron, President Xi Jinping will attend, in Beijing, the China-France-Germany leaders’ video conference summit on 16 April.” 

After playing coy all day, an Elysée official confirmed Thursday evening that a trilateral video chat will happen at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, but they insisted it’s not a “summit” — rather a regular call that’s not meant to compete with Biden’s event next week. They made it clear that global health will also be on the agenda.

“The Chinese are good at propaganda but not very subtle. Climate will not be the only topic on the agenda,” said an EU official. In a separate message, the official stressed that for the European sides involved “it is confirmed this is not a climate summit.” 

Leaders from Brussels — Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel and Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans — will play no role in the machinations over the coming days, another EU official said.

After China recently hit a group of European officials and lawmakers with retaliatory sanctions, engagement comes with some political jeopardy for Macron and Merkel.

“Unless something big comes out of this. Why would they want more than a readout saying: ‘We talked about climate because it’s in all our national interests and China is a major emitter.’ Period?” said Tollmann.

Europe has already submitted a new 2030 goal to the U.N. (although it is struggling to finalize the number in negotiations between EU institutions), so bargaining with China on its climate goal won’t be on the menu for Friday, said Tollman.

“I don’t think they’ll want this to be a tactical tit-for-tat,” he said. “Because it’s up to China to show that they’re serious about this, and they haven’t done that yet. And I think until they do that cooperation is just tricky.”

Additional reporting by Rym Momtaz.

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