The US, fresh from reversing its 30 years of opposition to a “loss and damage” fund for poorer countries suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis, has signaled that its longstanding image as global climate villain should now be pinned on a new culprit: China.
Following years of tumult in which the US refused to provide anything resembling compensation for climate damages, followed by Donald Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris climate agreement, there was a profound shift at the Cop27 UN talks in Egypt, with Joe Biden’s administration agreeing to the new loss and damage fund.
The US also backed language in the new agreement, which finally concluded in the early hours of Sunday morning after an often fraught period of negotiations between governments, that would demand the phase-out of all unabated fossil fuels, only to be thwarted by major oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Despite these stances, the US continued to be the leading target of ire from climate activists who blame it for obstruction and for failing to reckon with its role as history’s largest ever emitter of planet-heating gases. On Friday, the US was given the unwanted title of “colossal fossil” by climate groups for supposedly failing to push through the loss and damage assistance at Cop27.
The US delegation in Sharm el-Sheikh chafed at this image, with John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, using his closing remarks to shift the focus on to China, now the world’s largest emitter. Kerry said that “all nations have a stake in the choices China makes in this critical decade. The United States and China should be able to accelerate progress together, not only for our sake, but for future generations – and we are all hopeful that China will live up to its global responsibility.”
Kerry and his team were by the end of the talks “sick” of shouldering the blame, according to Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser, now with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington DC. “Somehow the US became the villain despite aggressive action on emissions, meanwhile Russia and China’s emissions are growing like crazy and yet they are not in the crosshairs of activists, it’s confusing,” he said.
“I mean it’s absurd. If we don’t get hold of China’s emissions the climate will spin out of control.”
Nate Hultman, who was part of Kerry’s negotiating team for Cop26 last year, said the US entered the climate talks “with its head held high” after Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act over the summer, which included more than $370bn (£313bn) in spending to advance renewable energy and electric cars. “The US is acting as one of the key leaders in getting the climate outcome the world wants, I just reject this caricature of the US being obstructionist,” he said.
The US and China, the world’s two largest emitters, had been in a sort of diplomatic deep freeze on climate issues following the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, to Taiwan in August. Cop27 saw the beginnings of a thaw in this relationship, with the overlapping G20 summit resulting in Biden resuming dialogue with Xi Jinping.
China’s emissions are now nearly three times as large as America’s and while it has become the pre-eminent renewable energy superpower, it is ramping up its use of coal at a rate that scientists say will push the world disastrously beyond 1.5C in global heating. “Our planet is still in the emergency room,” said António Guterres, secretary general of the UN, on the lack of progress in cutting emissions in the Cop27 deal.
“We need to drastically reduce emissions now and this is an issue this Cop did not address. The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition.”
China, and many climate activists, point to America’s long history of being the lead carbon polluter and its failure to honor past commitments on climate finance to developing countries strafed by heatwaves, droughts, floods and other impacts. Biden has promised $11bn (£9bn) for this effort, although this spending will probably be blocked by the House of Representatives when it falls under Republican control in January, barring a last-gasp funding deal before Christmas.
“A quarter of the CO2 in our atmosphere is red, white and blue,” said Ed Markey, a Democratic senator who visited the Cop27 summit. “The United States has a moral and planetary responsibility to partner, not prohibit, on equitable climate finance. We cannot leave the countries least responsible for the climate crisis to be sacrifice zones and bear this horrific burden alone.”
The summit also saw criticism of a glut of new oil and gas projects in the US, Biden’s call for a short-term leap in oil production to help bring down gasoline prices that have spiked following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a new carbon-trading scheme announced by Kerry.
The carbon offsets “will only further condemn the African continent and global south nations to a future of pollution and environmental chaos, all for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry and big business,” according to Ozawa Bineshi Albert, co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance.
Back at home, Biden will face pressure from activists to declare a climate emergency to bypass Republican intransigence and to curb the leases still being liberally handed out for oil and gas drilling. The focus of the president on climate, however, will be “China, China, China”, according to Bledsoe.
“That is the only game in town, we’ve got to get Beijing to bend its emissions downwards, whatever it takes, even if it’s carbon border tariffs,” he said. “No matter what, that’s the priority of Biden. If you want to blame two groups for the climate impasse, blame communist China and America’s Republican party. That’s the truth of it.”