COP27 was a disappointment, but US-China climate diplomacy is thawing

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“Whe rose to the incident,” the Egyptian foreign minister shouted after him COP27, the global climate summit that ended on November 20. Almost. The producers did not make a clear commitment to stop using fossil fuels. The best they could do was a vague agreement that rich countries should pay poor people money for climate-related “loss and damage”.

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To the extent that this move could help the COP process on the road, it was worth it. But the money promised is paltry: about $260m. And countries still haven’t agreed on who should pay and who should receive the money. Under the strange conditions of the UNClimate convention, China – after America, the second largest total emitter in history – would count as a “developing country” and would therefore be an appropriate recipient. Rich countries say, rightly, that China is far from poor and should be a donor. But try to deal with President Xi Jinping.

And it is difficult to persuade voters in rich countries to organize efforts to prevent climate change (which is in their own interest), let alone give large sums to politicians in poor countries. In theory this would compensate them for damages. But this is difficult to measure, it is difficult to apportion the blame and corrupt politicians can spend the money as they wish.

But more optimistically, as representatives from all over the world struggled in Egypt, there was little progress between two superpowers. China agreed to resume formal talks with America on climate change (see China section). It is surprising that these talks have ever been postponed, given that the two countries generate around 40% of global annual carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, the Chinese regime was so offended when Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the American House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August that it violated them, in fact putting its territorial claims above the future of the planet. Fortunately, about half way through COP27, Mr. Xi relented. At a G20 in Indonesia with President Joe Biden, he said that talks could start again.

Working together, China and America can make a big difference. In 2014 Mr. Xi and the then American President, Barack Obama, issued a statement calling climate change “one of the greatest threats facing humanity” and setting goals for its prevention. This laid the foundation for the Paris agreement in 2015, a UN an agreement to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C. If the two countries now agreed on, say, ways to finance projects to help countries adapt to climate change, or promote trade global in green technologies, the benefits could be enormous.

But climate change diplomacy is clouded by geopolitics. Last year the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, told the US climate change ambassador, John Kerry, that cooperation on climate issues could not be separated from the political relationship of the two countries. “If the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the oasis will become a desert,” he said. Threatening dunes are, indeed, growing large.

In January Ms. Pelosi will be followed by Republicans, who could find a new way to find Sino-American climate talks. Mr Xi’s long-term aim is to advance American power, and he seems to reject the idea that climate change will bring more natural disasters to China (the rare his government blaming him for the country’s devastating floods and droughts).

More cooperation is needed to combat climate change. But even without it, superpower competition can help in some ways. During the cold war, the American-Soviet conflict stimulated research into technologies such as nuclear power and solar panels. Today America and China want to control clean energy technologies, and they are pouring money to develop them. The rest of the world has already benefited from Chinese solar cells and American electric vehicles; there may be more violations.

Both powers are also trying to buy influence by supporting green projects in poorer countries, from flood defenses to renewable fuels. Even if this is for geopolitical reasons, the results are often unfair. cop27 may have been a disappointment, but the fight against climate change will be spent on many fronts.

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