When Joe Biden released his climate change plan last week it was noisily dissected by pollsters, journalists, politicians, activists and a parade of Twitter pundits. Did it conform to the goals and aspirations of the Green New Deal? Was the Democratic frontrunner being pushed to the left by young activists? How badly had he plagiarized certain sections of his platform from environmental groups?
But a central feature of Biden’s plan is receiving much less attention, despite having potentially massive global implications. In addition to promising to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2050 and spending $1.7 trillion of federal money on green infrastructure—elements that have so far dominated headlines—Biden is also vowing to throw America’s weight behind a diplomatic effort to block Chinese investment and support for climate-destroying coal plants.
His plan accuses China of “financing billions of dollars of dirty fossil fuel energy projects across Asia and beyond.” It promises that as president, “Biden will rally a united front of nations to hold China accountable to high environmental standards in its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects so that China can’t outsource pollution to other countries.”
No other major 2020 contender gives this much priority to the Chinese Communist Party–led country (Jay Inslee also has a section about China buried deep in his international plan), and this didn’t go unnoticed in China, where some analysts and decision-makers are paying close attention to the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
“If you spend three days in Beijing talking to the climate policy-making circle you will realize how large the U.S. looms,” said Li Shuo, the senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia. “To some extent it’s the only international [player] that can somehow affect China’s decision making.”
The Belt and Road Initiative that Biden refers to is a gigantic development plan led by China—quite possibly the largest in human history. China is helping build and finance roads, bridges, ports, and other crucial infrastructure in more than 70 countries across Asia, Europe and Latin America, which will help it dominate global trade and possibly amplify its military influence.
This plan could also make it impossible to meet the 50 percent reduction in global emissions that the United Nations calculates is needed by 2030 to avoid some of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative have the potential to emit more than half the planet’s greenhouse gasses by 2050. “As such, they could easily account for the next wave of emissions if they do not adopt strategies to avoid carbon-intensive growth,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a former Obama administration advisor.
Within its borders, the Chinese government has put a cap on coal consumption and is spending more than $360 billion on renewable energy. Yet abroad, Chinese companies are helping push forward at least 240 new coal projects in Belt and Road countries, while China-led policy banks are financing tens of billions of dollars worth of overseas oil and gas.
If all these fossil fuel projects go ahead, they could potentially negate any aggressive climate action taken in the U.S., which is why some people—including those on the right—are hailing the China-centric elements of Biden’s policies. “We could theoretically become carbon neutral and it wouldn’t do enough to end climate change,” said Tiana Lowe, a conservative columnist for the Washington Examiner. “And that’s why Joe Biden’s plan is so important and so realistic and so effective if it were actually put into place.”
Biden promises to crack down on the climate destruction China is supporting through Belt and Road by restricting financing for high-carbon projects, pushing for a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies, and publishing rankings reports that “name and shame global climate outlaws.” He also vows to export clean technology from the U.S. and provide “green debt relief” to developing countries that meet their energy and infrastructure needs without destroying the planet.
This harder line seems like a departure from Biden’s previous approach to China. During his years as vice president, the Obama administration negotiated a historic agreement for “bilateral cooperation” between the U.S. and China on climate change. Biden built on that to help urge support for the 2015 Paris agreement. (His campaign didn’t respond to VICE’s questions about his current thinking on China.)
With time quickly running out to preserve the conditions for a habitable Earth, experts are unanimous on the fact that the U.S. can and must provide global leadership that has been lacking under Donald Trump. “China needs to be held accountable to high environmental standards and the United States also needs to step up to the plate and provide a viable alternative to the [Belt and Road Initiative] for developing countries,” Gallagher said.
But Li warns that being tough and adversarial in pursuing this agenda comes with its own set of risks. “I can see a lot of downsides with that approach,” he said. Like in the U.S., China’s climate politics are a complex negotiation between competing economic and political interests. “It is not a homogenous entity,” he said.
A decade ago, influential voices in China argued that climate change is a hoax invented by the West to prevent it from becoming a superpower. Though that belief appears to have subsided, there is a possibility that “if we frame the climate agenda in a confrontational way… that will stir up the domestic conservative forces in China and strengthen their belief that this is just going to be used to curtail the development of China,” Li said.
One thing is for certain: The only way China—or any other major emitter—is going to listen to what America says internationally on climate change is if the U.S. first commits to transformative action at home. “There is quite a long way for the U.S. to go to restore its climate credibility,” Li said.
Correction: This story originally said Biden was the only candidate to mention China in the context of climate. In fact, Jay Inslee's climate plan discusses China. We regret the error.
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.