President Biden will summon dozens of world leaders Thursday and Friday for a virtual climate change summit aimed at securing historic cuts in pollution, but some key stakeholders, chiefly China and Russia, will likely be logging on with their own competing agendas and may try to use the meeting as an opportunity to back the U.S. into a corner.
The unwieldy guest list — by far the most varied and ambitious Mr. Biden has assembled since taking office — includes Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin and wild cards such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who may have mixed feelings about whether to make Mr. Biden’s pet project a success.
With Washington and Beijing having agreed over the weekend to cooperate in principle on climate issues, the stage seemingly is set for Mr. Biden to lock in emissions reduction pledges from his fellow world leaders that far exceed those President Obama achieved with the 2015 Paris climate accord. President Trump withdrew from the Paris pact in 2017, leaving Mr. Biden to pick up the pieces four years later and attempt to reassert America’s role on climate change.
But specialists warn that Mr. Biden may be misreading the situation and could be putting the U.S. in a vulnerable position. In a rush to secure Democrats’ priorities on aspects of the Green New Deal and demonstrate international leadership on the environment, they say, the president could hand a major victory to China, which has been reluctant to make specific climate pledges as it prioritizes its need for strong economic growth.
At the same time, Russia’s economic future hinges in part on melting Arctic ice opening up new maritime routes, meaning the Kremlin also has mixed priorities and may not be motivated to stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. as a moral leader on climate change. Throw in some tit-for-tat sanctions that Washington and Moscow lobbed at each other last week, and Mr. Putin’s agenda may be even harder to predict.
Against that backdrop, some analysts say, Mr. Biden’s summit appears less about rallying the world to action and more about providing a justification for liberal environmental policies at home.
“The Biden team [is] really interested in the domestic transformation of this economy and saying they’re working with other countries on climate change is an excuse to do that,” said James Carafano, a national security and foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This is kind of nonsensical, this strategy of the administration: Compete where we must, cooperate where we can [with adversaries]. The nonsense of that is that everything we need to cooperate on, the Chinese and Russians are on the opposite side.
“What does China want on climate change? They want the entire world to be dependent on green energy that’s linked to supply chains they control,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s environmental agenda, Mr. Carafano said, could strengthen China’s economic footprint around the world as the country manufactures and dominates markets for wind turbines, solar panels, car batteries and other renewable energy materials.
For Mr. Biden, the summit risks an outcome with countries dismissing the sweeping climate promises he seeks or spending more time pressing the U.S. to help fund their climate goals. Even U.S. allies such as India, the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, have balked at more ambitious climate targets and argue that the U.S. and the world’s developed industrial powers should take the first painful steps.
Mr. Biden and his Democratic Party are eager to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, and the president will likely lay out a set of targets at the virtual summit. Those goals are expected to be even more far-reaching than the U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2025.
The White House is also banking on Mr. Xi to ramp up China’s commitments. Under the Paris deal, Beijing agreed to cap its emissions by 2030, a weak promise that critics said allowed China to do little while the U.S. began to dramatically reshape its energy sector.
‘Seriousness and urgency’
China and the U.S. are the world’s top two polluters, followed by India and Russia. The European Union also is in the top five, and its member states typically act in concert on climate goals.
Although it’s unclear exactly what the goals from the summit will be, specialists say it’s naive for Washington to believe it has much leverage. They also say it would not be wise to use other foreign policy issues, such as the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border or China’s rampant human rights violations, as bargaining chips in climate talks.
“The most important thing is to not fall into the trap of thinking they would lower emissions for us,” said John Conger, former principal deputy under secretary of defense (comptroller) at the Pentagon, who now runs the Center for Climate and Security.
“They would do it because it’s in their own self-interest. They’re not going to do it for the sake of somebody else.
“As we contemplate that dynamic, fundamentally it’s good for everybody to lead by example and it’s good for everybody to reduce emissions,” he said. “But you’re not going to be able to make them do it. You’re not going to be able to negotiate them” into doing it.
The White House has invited 40 world leaders to the summit. Mr. Xi has not indicated whether he will address the virtual gathering, although both sides have said the fight against climate change is one of the few areas where Washington and Beijing might find common ground.
After two days of meetings in Shanghai over the weekend, White House climate envoy John Kerry and Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua released a joint statement that promised long-term cooperation on the issue. The two nations, the statement said, “are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”
Russia’s Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is headed to the meeting with an entirely different set of priorities. Some analysts say Moscow benefits from some degree of climate change because melting sea ice is opening up new shipping lanes, including Mr. Putin’s prized Northern Sea Route, meaning Russia’s approach is likely to be much more nuanced than those of the U.S., the European Union and perhaps even China.
Russia’s economy also depends heavily on its immense energy and mineral resources, and any sharp reduction in global demand for fossil fuels is probably not on Mr. Putin’s agenda.
The Kremlin confirmed Monday that Mr. Putin will speak at the event and “will outline Russia’s approaches in the context of establishing a broad international cooperation geared to reverse negative impacts of global climate change.” The announcement offered no details of what commitments the Russian leader will make.
Melting ice in the Arctic may benefit Russia economically as shipping lanes open, but the transformation comes at a cost.
“The opening of the Northern Sea Route is an economic opportunity for them, although it also makes accessible a long, vulnerable coastline,” Mr. Conger said. “It’s both an opportunity and a risk. But they have to be thinking about some of these dynamics: Does this change things to our advantage?”