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How America and China broke the global climate trap

Obama and Xi.
Obama and Xi.
Feng Li/Getty Images

The November 11 US-China deal to curb carbon emissions is a major step forward for the campaign to address climate change. It's also something of a shock: for a long time, the US-China rivalry had been a major stumbling block in the way of an international agreement on global warming. What happened?

Essentially, the US and China started talking on their own. Tension between the US and China has helped ruin the UN global climate talks, the main attempt to reach a worldwide accord. But now these secret bilateral negotiations between the two powers have helped break a major part of the trap US-China conflict had created for global negotiations. The reason bilateral US-China negotiations have worked better has to do with changes in both countries — as well as the weird frenemy character of the US-China relationship itself.

How US-China competition wrecked a climate agreement

US-China military leaders

US army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno meets with Fan Changlong, Deputy Chaiman of the Central Military Commission at the Bayi Building in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States and China need one another. For a variety of reasons that extend beyond just trade ties, the American and Chinese economies are closely linked, and both benefit if the other does well. So the two need to cooperate to manage the global economy.

But US-Sino tensions run deep. In the immediate term, China wants to expand its influence over East Asian countries, while the US has arranged a coalition including South Korea and Japan to limit that. In the longer term, the US is worried about China challenging American global leadership, while China's leaders have long believed the United States is working to undermine their regime. So, despite some necessary levels of cooperation, the two countries still see one another as competitors.

Climate change negotiations have reflected this frenemy dynamic. Both nations, in principle, recognize that it'd be in everyone's best interest to stop climate change. However, they haven't been able to agree on the text of an international agreement. Neither country really trusted the other to follow through on emissions reductions, and so neither was willing to commit to a binding agreement unless the other committed first.

This matters for more than just the US and China: it matters for any global climate efforts. Getting buy-in from both the United States and China is necessary, if not sufficient, for any wider UN agreement. No global accord on climate change could really work so long as the two largest emitters refused to sign on.

"This US-Chinese ‘game of chicken' held back serious negotiations in the past," Robert Falkner, an expert on international climate negotiations at the London School of Economics, writes. US-China mistrust prevailed over mutual self-interest. So no deal happened.

Why US-China talks succeeded where UN negotiations failed

xi jinping obama

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama meet. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Two key factors helped make these bilateral negotiations more successful than the multilateral summits that came before them. First, both countries got serious on climate change at home. Second, the bilateral character of negotiations helped on its own.

In the United States, President Obama gave up his first-term push for new climate legislation and simply acted. In June, the president used the EPA's Clean Air Act powers to cut emissions from domestic power plants in June. The plan cuts US emissions levels from power plants to about 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, making it one of the Obama administration's most important domestic accomplishments on climate change.

The Chinese government, rightly concerned about political unrest stemming from China's disastrous pollution problems, has also geared up. "The country's 12th Five-Year Plan adopted in 2011 already contains a large section with policies on reducing energy and carbon intensity in the economy, increasing non-fossil energy as part of the energy mix and establishing a carbon trading system," Falkner writes. After that announcement, Falkner argues, China's commitment to addressing climate change has only escalated — including signaling greater public openness to an international agreement.

So by 2014, both countries had shown willingness to act on their own. But to get an agreement, the next crucial step was talking to each other directly — before the onset of formal UN negotiations.

The UN climate talks were caught in a sort of catch-22. No agreement would ever work unless the US and China both signed on. But UN summits made it hard for the two countries to join the same platform. For one thing, the UN process was aiming for an agreement that would create binding international law, whereas the joint US-China plan is non-binding. Non-binding agreements are much easier to work out.

For another, other countries who were party to the talks have other priorities. "Countries such as China and India, but also Brazil and South Africa, are now playing a more assertive role in international negotiations and are equally reluctant to sign on to binding international commitments," Falkner writes. These newly aggressive countries have "increased the number of veto players in international negotiations," meaning that the US and China had to work out any eventual deal with a variety of other countries, each with their own interests.

The non-binding US-China deal doesn't have to satisfy India or Brazil. The US and China worked out their own issues, getting an important preliminary agreement in place before being confronted with the broader international problem.

Can the US-China agreement push the rest of the world forward?

brazil climate protest

A climate rally in Rio de Janeiro on September 21, 2014. (Thiago Ripper/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Falkner calls this agreement a "game changer," and for good reason. The agreement is a big deal on its own terms, but it also makes a future multilateral agreement more likely. US-China cooperation on climate breeds cooperation.

Ideally, the US and China will go into the 2015 UN meetings with a shared vision for a strong treaty. Falkner believes that a "US-Chinese agreement on the main parameters of a future climate treaty could unblock the international negotiations," as it would send a very strong signal to the rest of the world that this round of negotiations is different from the somewhat less serious efforts in the past.

However, even that doesn't guarantee a new climate treaty. "If the US and China agree to an international agreement with commitments to emission reductions, they will insist that these commitments are made in the form of non-binding pledges," Falkner concludes. "Other countries will find it difficult to agree to a treaty architecture that leaves countries to determine their own level of ambition."

However, this is something of a happy problem to have, as far as international climate politics goes. For years, rivalry between the United States and China torpedoed international agreements on climate change. The fact that the two nations are starting to work together is major progress — and a fairly large feather in the Obama administration's cap.