The U.S. Is Back in Paris. Will It Regain Its Role as Climate Leader?
On Friday, February the 19th, the United States officially rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, bringing to an end an extended period of national disengagement from the global effort to address climate change. As the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gasses, and today’s second largest emitter behind China, U.S. engagement is critical to the global effort to address climate change.
Yet the climate framework that the U.S. abandoned under the Trump administration looks different today. The U.S., rather than being a clear leader on climate issues, is embarking on an effort to rebuild trust and reassure the world that it will remain committed to addressing climate change, while the relative influence in of China, Europe and other regions has grown in global climate dialogue.
Joanna Lewis, Director of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program at Georgetown University, discusses how the Paris Climate framework, and the global hierarchy of climate leadership, has changed in recent years. She also looks at the barriers that U.S.-China trade tensions may present to climate cooperation as the U.S. rejoins the Paris process.
Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. Last Friday, February 19th, the United States officially rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, bringing to an end an extended period of national disengagement from the global effort to address climate change. The US has been welcomed back into the Paris fold. As the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases and today’s second-largest emitter behind China, US engagement is critical to the global effort to address climate change. Yet the climate framework that the US abandoned under the Trump administration looks different today. The US, rather than being a clear leader on climate issues, is now embarking on an effort to rebuild trust and reassure the world that it will remain committed to addressing climate change. And the US is returning at a time when the relative influence of China, Europe, and other regions has grown in global climate dialogue.
Here to discuss how the Paris climate framework has changed in recent years and the challenges this may pose for the US as it reengages, is Joanna Lewis. Joanna is Director of the Science, Technology & International Affairs program at Georgetown University. She is also a strategic advisor to the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Joanna, welcome to the podcast.
Joanna Lewis: Hi, thanks for having me.
Stone: Could you start us out by introducing us to your work on international collaboration to address climate change?
Lewis: Sure. Throughout my career, I have been working on projects with international collaborators, and particularly in China, where I’ve worked for about two decades now. And now as a professor and researcher, I have built upon my own experience in this area and actually study cooperation in the climate change area, both technical cooperation and political cooperation and the interaction between the two.
I always am continuing to look for constructive ways to engage, particularly the US and China, through running dialogues that bring together members of the research think tank and NGO communities in both countries.
Stone: US/China bilateral cooperation was critical to the development and finalization of the Paris Climate Agreement back in 2015. Why were the US and China so important at that time?
Lewis: The US and China always play important roles, first and foremost because essentially these are the two largest global emitters of greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, of course, always has significant global influence, and China in particular in the past has been extremely important as a leader of the developing world, with the G77, particularly in the context of the International Climate Negotiations. So you have countries really turning to both countries — both China and the United States — on the climate issue. China and the United States have many common interests when it comes to climate change, but they don’t always see eye to eye on the right approach to take. So when agreement can be reached, that’s even more significant, and that reverberates globally.
Stone: You bring up that point that the US and China don’t always see eye to eye, and that’s very clear today, but looking back at those years leading up to the finalization of the Paris Climate Agreement, can you talk about the US/Chinese diplomacy and cooperation that was going on at that time that allowed the two countries to work together bilaterally to really get the agreement pushed forward?
Lewis: Sure, so US/China cooperation on clean energy and climate science and a variety of technical fields goes back decades, but it was really the Obama administration that ushered in a new era of climate and energy cooperation between China and the United States, both in terms of enhanced technical cooperation, as well as exciting initiatives to pursue joint R&D, such as the US/China Clean Energy Research Center, and also the first real high-level political engagement through the Climate Change Working Group.
So I think there were a few key reasons why China and the US were able to come together in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement. First of all, neither country wanted a repeat of Copenhagen. These were the climate negotiations that took place at the end of 2009, which was really the most fascinating COP I’ve ever observed.
Stone: It was a real disappointment, right?
Lewis: Yes, it was really just a breakdown in the process. I was lucky enough to get to be in the building all night watching the process break down. At 3:00 in the morning, you had a situation where leaders showed up at the conference with nothing to sign. There was no nice photo op, instead having to famously really roll up their sleeves, chasing each other all over the convention center. It was not something anyone expected, and I think China in particular got a lot of the blame and backlash in the media after the Copenhagen summit. It really didn’t want a repeat of that. It had an incentive to engage with the US and essentially avoid any surprises the next time around.
Second, I think again, leading up to Paris, there was a much stronger understanding of the emissions trends on both sides, which was directly a result of the technical cooperation that had been scaling up between the two countries since 2008 in the climate and energy space. There were many exchanges that took place over that time period to really look at the models, the inventories, and build mutual understanding and trust. I think people who don’t work in China don’t necessarily understand the amazing capacity that has been built in just the past decade or so on climate change. I recall one of my early jobs working with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab back in 2001, 2002. It was essentially to camp out with some of China’s main energy modelers and get to know them, learn about what they were doing, where the data gaps are, so that we can better structure and inform our collaboration. And it was really about capacity-building. It was just a different world in terms of capacity then and now. And so now there are world-class researchers and think tanks and institutes in the universities in China — a new generation of scholars with really deep expertise in this field. And with that comes just much more confidence to be able to make international pledges that the government can actually feel confident in the numbers that are put forward.
So I think it’s really a combination of this scaled-up communication and collaboration with deeper understanding and trust that allow things like the 2014 joint agreement on climate change between the US and China to take place. But I think this was not just limited to Paris during this time period. This collaboration led to key agreements to be reached on aviation emissions, on the phase-out of HFCs through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. These were all issues where China was very reluctant to move until it became a key topic of not just bilateral engagement between China and the US, but really presidential-level conversations. And so again, in those years leading up to Paris, you saw in almost every joint statement that would come out between Presidents Xi and Obama the mention of the incremental progress that was being reached on a variety of issues on climate change, and I think really a shared understanding of the power of this G2 relationship to leverage global climate cooperation.
Stone: Were there specific issues that the United States and China were very much in agreement on going into the finalization of the Paris Agreement? And were there particular sticking points at that point?
Lewis: Well, I think the most important change in the international climate regime from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement was really this move away from a bifurcation between developed and developing countries. You know the phrase, “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which is really core to the framework convention and also is mentioned in the Paris agreement. And really this thinking of what that means and how that plays out in reality was something that, for a long time, I think China and the United States didn’t agree on but were able to find some common ground through the model which is implemented in the Paris agreement of NDCs, essentially — climate pledges that are self-designed by the countries themselves. And this really allowed China and the US, and then the rest of the industrialized and developing world to follow on, to really agree with this sort of new model for international climate cooperation, where it wasn’t just that the developed countries took pledges and the developing countries sat by and watched, but everyone took action in line with their respective capacity. And that was what was really important because as we know, a global climate agreement is really ineffective if you don’t include all the major emitters and have countries like China, India, Brazil at the table — which we didn’t under Kyoto, and we do now in Paris.
So I think that was one area where we really were able to find common ground, but there remain still many, many areas where there are disagreements. A big one over the years has been in this area of transparency or how we assess progress towards meeting pledges about data and information and just really different thinking between China and the United States about how that process should look and what the role is of national sovereignty versus a more internationally transparent process.
Stone: In the beginning of 2017, Obama leaves office. Trump comes in as the new president and shortly thereafter makes it clear that the United States is going to leave the Paris process. How did the US disengagement from Paris change the balance of power? Who comes in to fill the US’s void? Is there a change in priorities that results from the US’s disengagement?
Lewis: The first thing I’d mention is that the United States did not fully disengage. This was somewhat of a gradual process. They were still involved in the negotiations. The delegation was still there, but US disengagement did open the door for a new set of non-state actors to be increasingly more engaged in the international process, many of whom had been engaged in the domestic process for a long time.
So people like former California governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg became increasingly engaged at the international level. You saw, particularly in Brown’s case in California, getting more engaged in bilateral cooperation. And in Bloomberg’s case, in really rallying the sub-national actors across the United States and the businesses to really remind the world that we are still in — was what they referred to this movement as, which was just renamed on Friday “America Is All In,” I believe.
So I think there was still definitely a vacuum, of course, at the leader level, and much of the official bilateral engagement between China and the United States was either halted or greatly diminished in scope during the Trump administration. And so we did see other countries step in, particularly the EU, and the leaders of Germany and France in particular ramped up their bilateral engagement with China. Of course they had always been there as an important partner, and in fact, the EU has spent far more money on bilateral climate and energy cooperation with China than the United States has, but it’s really a different model of cooperation with different motivations and different limitations. It can be hard to get agreement across the EU. It doesn’t always speak with one voice. They have been very involved, particularly at the working level, on things like the design of China’s emissions trading system, of course which has some similarities to the European system, and then more recently on the pursuit of a mid-century carbon neutrality goal.
I think it’s valuable that the EU was able to have these conversations with China at a time when the US leaders were not able to have them. And just one more point on leadership, I remember there was a lot of excitement that when the US initially announced it was withdrawing from Paris, that this would finally be China’s chance to step up and become a global climate leader internationally. But this was never really likely and didn’t quite come to fruition because to be fair, there are always sort of two Chinas when it comes to climate change. There’s the one that drags their feet a bit in the international negotiations, claiming that as a developing country, they shouldn’t be required to take the same actions as countries like the US. But then you still have the China that is simultaneously implementing domestic policies to position themselves to become the global clean energy leader, for example. I think China has always been what I call a “reluctant leader” on the international stage. Their climate negotiating position always lags with what they’re actually legislating domestically. So again, while we see increasing confidence from China’s leadership to think big on climate change, I thought it was very striking that we saw China’s president last September announce a big climate goal in a very, very public way. That’s not something we would have seen a Chinese leader do just a few years ago. But this doesn’t translate into China playing an active role in necessarily leading the developing world in the framework convention. And of course, they are still actively selling coal plants to the developing world.
Stone: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that, and I think the question I want to ask really here is can you define leadership in a sense, when we’re talking about the global climate effort? Because look, you’ve got China, as you’ve just mentioned, which is building — I think it’s a pipeline of 250 gigawatts of domestic coal plants, financing fossil fuel development overseas through the Belt and Road Initiative. The United States is back, but it has proven itself to be an unreliable partner within the global climate context, first with Kyoto, and now with Paris. And then you have the EU, which has been very aggressive. I think it has the goal now of reducing emissions by 55% by the end of this decade. So you’ve got these three big global entities, but they all look very different. What does leadership actually mean, then, in this global context?
Lewis: Yes, that’s a really interesting question. I think the biggest problem is that countries don’t tend to legislate on time scales needed to deal with long-term existential threats like climate change. In the United States, things change every four years, and in some countries, even more frequently than that. In some ways, China is actually one of the most long-term thinkers, due to their political system which thrives on 5-year plans and then mid and long-term plans, as well. So they’ve always had targets for things that extend out decades. And in the US, we don’t tend to do that.
I think mid-century goals are very important for the signals they send. They’re not sufficient. If the Chinese president can announce a 2060 carbon neutrality goal one week, and then the next week an official approves 100 gigawatts of new coal construction, how do you reconcile these two things, because you can’t actually get to carbon neutrality in 2060 if you’re building coal plants today in 2021? These things run for half a century.
So I think that this is something countries are grappling with right now, and it just has to do with the fact that these real, kind of domestic drivers are not always in line with the role that countries would like to play at the global level.
Stone: You recently wrote in a paper that I think came out at the end of 2020, and this is kind of a paraphrase here, that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the most important shift in China’s economic and foreign policy over the last decade. And it’s also the biggest gap to our bilateral cooperation. I think that’s bilateral cooperation between the US and China. Can you tell us a little bit more how the Belt and Road Initiative is complicating the international effort to address climate change, particularly at this point, with the US reengaging?
Lewis: Well, I think right now on the Belt and Road Initiative, the United States has essentially just stayed out of it, has essentially stood by and watched and put very little pressure on China. I think there is just a huge opportunity for the United States to engage China in a variety of ways. First of all, this is not just about Belt and Road. China is playing an increasingly important role in the entire international financing of infrastructure and particularly energy infrastructure. Should we be bringing China more into the fold in the multilateral development banks, where it’s playing an increasingly important role like the World Bank? Should the United States join the Asian infrastructure bank, where we again decided to kind of sit back because this is an area where, again, you can have these conversations? Or should we be talking more about a direct US-led approach to engaging many of the countries where China is investing and essentially either countering that investment or even looking for ways to leverage that investment towards cleaner projects?
I think there are a lot of really good ideas out there about how the United States can work strategically with partners and use public and private investments to change the calculation for recipient countries. And this has to be done in part through our bilateral strategy but also through much broader international forums where we engage.
Stone: I wanted to address the internal political situation in China and how that influences what they can and cannot do on climate. There’s an interesting little point that China has this pipeline of about 250 gigawatts of coal plants. The coal plants that it has right now are not working at full capacity, not even close to it. So you’ve got this build-out of fossil fuel units. They’re not being used to start out with. Is this really kind of a public works project, and does China not really intend to use these plants, particularly because renewables have become so cheap? What’s your sense of that?
Lewis: Yes, this is, I think, a really important question. I think the political economy of the low-carbon energy transition in China is really quite complex. It’s easy to look at things that China is doing in the clean energy space which can be quite impressive and dramatic, and then look at what’s happening on the fossil side and not be able to reconcile these two things. But we have to remember that China is still an economy that was built on coal. It still runs primarily on coal. The coal companies in China, which are heavily state-owned, state-invested, are extremely powerful entities still.
I mention that because we talk a lot in this country about the just transition really encompassing, again, not just the technology transition, but the transition of local economies, of jobs, of how do you retrain people who spent their careers working in a coal mine to install a solar panel on someone’s roof, right? You have winners and losers in this country, and in China this is just a much, much more massive problem because it’s not just about how you facilitate a transition to cleaner energy that’s equitable, but it’s about avoiding civil unrest that could result from mass lay-offs, which could threaten the overall stability of the country.
And so that’s, I think, this really fundamental issue that China’s leadership is grappling with, where I think they understand the necessity of the transition. And of course in China, climate change is very inherently linked to local environmental problems. It’s linked to just overall inefficiencies in the economy. A lot of what they need to achieve to make this happen — it’s not just about deploying wind turbines. It’s about major structural reforms to really remove inefficiencies in the economy, corruption, more market signals. And these are all things that you can kind of do in terms of window dressing, but until you get at these fundamental issues, you’re never going to be able to do them in a really effective and holistic way.
Stone: There’s an interesting quote from John Kerry that appeared in Politico recently. Kerry is the US Special Envoy for Climate. He said that climate leadership brings with it, “an unprecedented wealth-creation opportunity.” And this is in the context of, for example, the EU’s welcoming the US back to the Paris framework. But the EU has also made it clear that it intends to redouble its efforts to compete against the US, China, and others in climate technologies and infrastructure. So given that, to what extent might competition for the economic spoils of climate leadership interfere with climate collaboration?
Lewis: I think it’s important to realize we’re not going to be able to get the innovation we need in the clean energy space without competition. We have seen firsthand how, when you protect markets and remove competition like China did when it first grew its wind industry or its solar industry, that there will be a lot of poorly-performing products. In that sense, competition can be a good thing. I think we also need to think more strategically as a society how to balance our desire to build clean energy industries domestically and create local jobs, with the need to deploy these technologies as quickly and cheaply as possible globally, if we’re going to be serious about a low-carbon transition and addressing climate change in the next decade.
And so it’s a no-brainer that the US needs to invest more in clean energy innovation, but I think it’s not so much a question of we are falling behind China, and so this is a competitiveness strategy to catch up. I think it’s that the United States brings unique knowledge and expertise to this industry, and the world will benefit from the US being more involved in developing new technologies and bringing them to the market, and from the US building more experience with clean energy development and deployment here. So we are still the leading innovator in the world, and we should be more actively entering this industry, just as we are scaling up innovation in artificial intelligence, biotech, and other areas.
Stone: Five years ago, trade relations between the United States and China were significantly better than they are today. They were easier. Now we’re coming out of several years of really intense tensions between the two countries. How has that intensified these trade issues? How might they impact the ability for the United States and China — and other countries, as well — to work together, particularly collaboration on new technologies where you’ve got IP concerns? You’ve got competitiveness concerns. Do the trade tensions that we’ve recently come through make that all more difficult?
Lewis: I think trade tensions are certainly not going to disappear with the Biden administration, and if anything, they may get worse. But I do think what can change for the better, in contrast with the prior administration, is just the approach. Under Obama, we were working both collaboratively and punitively with China on trade, simultaneously. If the United States is going to demand things like better intellectual property rights protection, better market access — these are actually areas where China needs to still build capacity, particularly in the provinces which still lag behind Western market conditions and where we still see widespread corruption, including in the clean energy industry.
So it’s not just as easy as the Chinese government saying, “Yes, we will stop stealing your intellectual property,” or “We’ll open our markets.” In many cases, you have a situation where Beijing would actually like this to happen because it’s also in their own self interest, but it’s a long haul to get the entire country up to speed. And of course I want to separate this from the issue of state-sanctioned technology theft which is important, but I think it’s a separate issue from the broader trade concerns between our countries.
Stone: You’ve also written that climate action can be a negotiating lever for trade agreements with the US. For example, a country that wants to trade with the United States might have to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies as what it must do before engaging in that trade with the United States. How do you view this in terms of climate becoming a trade policy tool itself?
Lewis: I think this is really an evolving area internationally. I think we really do see this emerging tension between countries’ desires to build domestic clean energy industries and doing that in a way that employs protectionist policies that can come into direct conflict with international trade law. And then we see explicit trade instruments being discussed in the EU now and previously in the US, with things like carbon border adjustments or border tax adjustments. I think these are really interesting because on the surface, these are powerful tools that are targeted at countries with less stringent environmental standards, primarily emerging, developing countries, and of course China as a big exporter of energy-intensive goods could be a big target of a carbon border adjustment.
Back when the US Congress was discussing various cap-and-trade legislations, almost all of them included some form of carbon border adjustment which was often referred to as sort of “the China provision.” But China is also in the process of implementing what will be the world’s largest emissions trading system, which is slated to cover these industrial sectors. So you can imagine, for example, in the case of China and the EU, if they could come to an agreement, that it could be the case that China’s domestic policy could actually fulfill the conditions of the border adjustment, essentially meet the carbon standard. You’d be applying at the border for traded goods. And this is obviously best-case scenario, and the worst case would be just a kind of ever-deteriorating trade war. But I do think that climate policy opens up new opportunities to think about trade policy. And there’s not enough appreciation for the overlap between these two areas.
Stone: Now I want to jump forward to the big event that’s happening this year, which is obviously COP 26 in Glasgow, which will take place in November. The US is back in Paris now, and President Biden is clearly working to rebuild US climate credibility following our disengagement from Paris. To what extent can the United States be in a position of leadership at Glasgow, again considering that we’re just back, and the world has changed?
Lewis: Yes, a couple of points. First of all, as I mentioned, I do think it’s actually valuable that even though the United States formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement, that you still had US negotiators at the table for the last several years. You had a US delegation actively participating in the UN process, and they essentially had the perspective that they wanted to continue to make the process as strong as possible for a time when the US would eventually rejoin. I don’t know if this is fully appreciated. I don’t think you had career diplomats essentially working to undermine the Paris Agreement. In fact, really quite the opposite. I think there was always this presumption the US would rejoin at some point, and so it would be important to make sure that the details of the agreement — many of which were negotiated after 2015 — you know, the Paris rulebook detailed agreements surrounding issues like transparency. And these are things where you actually saw the US/China dynamic continue to play an important role in finalizing the details of this agreement.
So I do think this actually puts the United States in a good position to reengage, and the timing couldn’t be better with respect to Glasgow. This is the COP by which countries were supposed to announce two important things: First their new NDC, their new climate pledge, as well as mid-century goals. And of course this was supposed to happen last year, which would have been horrible timing, actually, either during or right after the US election, what with Trump still in charge. But of course now, due to the COVID pandemic, it was postponed a year. This gives the Biden administration really almost a year now to prepare for COP 26. I think that will include a combination of getting their domestic house in order and conducting extensive international outreach and diplomacy.
And of course President Biden has announced this Earth Day Summit coming up, which will put a marker in the ground, really telling all countries they should show up to the summit with something — hopefully something more than they’ve already announced. And that also puts countries like China sort of indirectly in the spotlight here, because they’ve already announced this mid-century goal, this 2060 carbon neutrality target, and they have announced the outlines of their new climate pledge. While these are all steps in the right direction, they’re likely not enough to get the world on a fully net zero pathway by mid-century.
The Biden administration is clearly already hard at work on both the US target and on international engagement, and I think presuming the US will be in a position to announce something strong in April in terms of what we’re going to do domestically, that will go a long way towards restoring global goodwill. But of course whatever is announced in terms of the US’s Paris pledge has to be backed by real domestic policy, and that will be harder. It was far too easy for Trump to erase the Obama-era climate policy, and I think the Biden administration will at least try to avoid that happening again.
Stone: The United States has a commitment to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28% by 2025 under the first NDC under Paris. What happens with that? We’re way off-track from reaching that. Do we get kind of a pass on that if we’re aggressive towards 2030? How does that work?
Lewis: Yes, I think that again, it’s this constant kind of balance between the near-term and the long-term targets, the political signals that that sends. I think that the United States is actually now not as far off as they might have been, just because of the economic recession which obviously is not a good thing but can be better for emissions. But yes, I do think it’s much more important to be forward-thinking and to show to the world that we have the instruments in place to really make progress towards reducing domestic emissions.
Stone: Before we finish up here, I wanted to ask you about one other area of US engagement, and that’s climate cooperation outside of the Paris framework, such as through the Clean Energy Ministerial where the US is also posed to reengage. What are the roles of these other types of international engagement in making progress on climate?
Lewis: Yes, I do think it’s important to remember that while the Paris Agreement is important, it’s just one forum that we have to engage multilaterally on climate change. And if you’ve ever witnessed a climate negotiation, you know that getting 200 countries to agree to something can be a very heavy lift. In fact, many things can be better addressed, at least initially, in a smaller grouping of countries. And we have several such platforms already. We have the Major Economies Forum and whatever it may be rebranded as going forward, as well as things like the Clean Energy Ministerial Mission Innovation. These all focus on different aspects of the climate problem and can help to facilitate discussion in a different way than the UN.
These are forums that can also bring in different actors, so not climate negotiators necessarily, but energy ministers, finance ministers, and then of course we also have ways to now — many processes for sub-national engagement of non-state actors and to bring them into the discussion, which is extremely important. I am sure the Biden team is looking at all these processes to decide where to reengage or where to rebrand or where to kind of let things lie. But many of the things I mentioned were actually US-created processes, so we did see value in them then and likely will now, or at least in something similar.
One, for example, Mission Innovation — and this was announced at the time the Paris Agreement was signed. It was about coordinating research and development pledges to scale up global clean energy innovation, which is a good thing, I think we can all agree. But the United States didn’t meet our pledge to essentially double our investment. Now we could. China, in fact, did meet their pledge, it looks like to double their government R&D spending on clean energy by 2020. They essentially doubled their investment from 4 to 8 billion dollars, which would put it officially ahead of what we’re spending right now in the United States. And R&D in clean energy actually did go up under Trump, despite efforts to try to prevent that from happening.
I think you can either frame China surpassing the US in clean energy innovation — dollars again, in this competitiveness frame. Or you can say, “This is great. We now have other countries helping to play a role in covering the costs of the clean energy transition.” So I do think that institutions like this can be really valuable to continue to really think of different angles at getting at the climate challenge, of course clean energy innovation being one that I looked at, and one that I think is particularly important but certainly not the only one.
Stone: Joanna, thanks for talking.
Lewis: Of course. It has been a pleasure.
Stone: Today’s guest has been Joanna Lewis, Associate Professor of Energy & Environment at Georgetown University. Visit the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy website for more energy and climate policy news and research. Our web address is KleinmanEnergy.upenn.edu, and our Twitter feed is @KleinmanEnergy. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day.