Across the world, climate change is understood as one of the greatest threats of the 21st century. World leaders and international organizations like the United Nations (U.N.) believe that in order to tackle global challenge and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, countries have to work together. Yet despite 26 U.N. climate change conferences, several international treaties—including the widely acclaimed Paris Agreement—pressure from activists, and continuous work from climate scientists, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise (Ritchie and Roser). Climate experts have found that in a best-case scenario, in which all 2030 emissions commitments and net-zero commitments are met, the planet will likely reach 1.8° C warming by the end of the century, which is well above the international target of 1.5° C (Hausfather and Forster). Given the current state of affairs, the world will likely fall short of this subpar “best-case scenario,” and reach closer to 2.3° C (Emissions Gap Report and Ibid). Cooperation on climate change is something world leaders cannot seem to get right.
The current large-scale cooperative international approach to climate change is failing, in part, because there are no incentives for countries to cooperate and no serious repercussions if they fail to meet their climate goals. The inability for large groups to cooperate when no strong incentives is a classic collective action problem (Olson). Likewise, there is no country actively leading the charge on climate change and influencing others to follow suit. Under these circumstances, it is in each country’s immediate best interests to act as a free rider.
After almost 30 years, it is clear that traditional cooperation is failing the climate. Given the increasing rate of climate disasters and rapidly warming environment, cooperation on climate change has to be reimagined to incite meaningful action: cooperation through strategic competition.
For this reimagined climate strategy to succeed, the competition must be focused between the U.S. and China. As the largest greenhouse gas emitters, contributing almost 40 percent of worldwide GHGs combined, China and the US are arguably the most important actors in the climate policy arena (Mufson and Dennis). Both countries have also signaled their desire to be climate leaders and their desire to control the growing green energy market. This dynamic creates room for competition between the two powers akin to the space race.
With patriotism running high as the U.S. and Soviet Union vied for space supremacy, new technologies were created that pushed scientific boundaries and improved lives (Green). To ensure the U.S. would win, NASA’s budget was 4 percent of total federal spending, compared with 0.5 percent today (Planetary Society). It is likely that without this competitiveness, the astronauts would have landed on the moon later than 1969. As the U.S. and China both try to be climate leaders, this same dynamic could emerge. But rather than reaching for the moon, the climate race will be a race to zero emissions and control of the green technology market.
Competition already exists between the U.S. and China on green technology. For several years, China has been ramping up electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing and has become a major player in the EV market (Black). Biden has noticed China’s advancement in EVs and has proposed a $174 billion investment under the American Jobs Plan “to win the EV market” (The White House). Transportation is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emission in the U.S., so transitioning to EVs is critical (EPA). Competition in the EV market is going to push producers to develop more advanced vehicles, while also driving down consumer prices. Regardless of who dominates the global EV market, cleaner transportation will make the environment the ultimate victor.
If the U.S. and China applied this competitiveness to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the world would have a much better chance at mitigating climate change. The urgency surrounding a so-called climate race would result in increased funding to develop and deploy clean energy technology. To strengthen their respective international influence, the U.S. and China would likely also offer competing support to countries that are unable to reduce emissions on their own.
Ultimately, being competitive with China is a means to cooperation. This strategic competition should not be treated as an end goal; creating an openly hostile, antagonistic, zero-sum game will benefit nobody. Rather, competition should be pursued with an understanding that the end goal is cooperation and an inhabitable planet. Moreover, competition must be fostered in an environment where international norms prevent countries from undermining each other’s efforts. However, despite competition with China should not preclude opportunities for natural cooperation. Rather, strategic competition is one part of what should be a multifaceted relationship with China in the fight against climate change.
Kathlina Brady is a Master's of Global Policy Studies candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current research focuses on environment and development policy, specifically the intersection of climate change and international development. She will be graduating this upcoming May.
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Olson, Mancur. 1977. The logic of collective action: public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
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