UN senior advisor chides US for not sufficiently engaging China in its climate ambitions

The “aggressive approach” of the US towards China will only lead to tensions not solutions, warned UN SDG solutions network president and prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Jeffrey Sachs_Global Mobility Call
Prominent Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs speaks in a session called "The age of sustainable development: our future is at stake" at the Global Mobility Call in Madrid, Spain. Image: Agencia EFE

The United States must engage China in its climate ambitions, instead of making the country an “enemy”, according to a prominent academician and senior advisor of the United Nations (UN).

“If we want sustainable development, we need cooperation with China, not antipathy towards it,” said Jeffrey Sachs, president of the UN arm which mobilises global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical problem-solving for sustainable development.

Sachs said the “aggressive approach” of the US is leading to higher tension instead of solutions, just like how the American government urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to enlarge into Ukraine, which he says provoked the Russian invasion. 

The US has been limiting trade and technology to China in the past five years, whereby the Western leader has accused the Asian super power of unfair trading practices, including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, lack of market access for American companies in China, and creating an unlevel playing field through state subsidies of Chinese companies. China, meanwhile, believes the US is trying to restrict its rise as a global economic power.

If we want sustainable development, we need cooperation with China, not antipathy towards it.

Jeffrey Sachs, president, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network

Last year, the US also organised a new military alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia aimed to counter China.

“All of these [actions] are aggressive in my view. All of it is counter-productive because it starts from the premise that China is dangerous, therefore needs to be confronted. We need a new geopolitical approach,” Sachs told Eco-Business on Wednesday on the sidelines of sustainable transport conference Global Mobility Call in Madrid, Spain.

Sachs, known to be an outspoken advocate of policies that alleviate third world poverty, said the US needs to engage China to help the world’s second largest economy meet its decarbonisation ambitions and its attempt to move to low-emissions energy investments for its mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure plan.

However, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in May, climate envoys John Kerry of the US and China’s Xie Zhenhua set a collaborative tone when they acknowledged how the energy mix in their respective countries has to be “adjusted and transformed”. 

At last year’s climate change conference, both nations held a declaration reaffirming their commitment to “tackling [climate change] through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s, as well as through cooperation in multilateral processes.” While the declaration was valued, it offered scant detail on how to implement those plans.

China set strict decarbonisation goals last year, but these targets were relaxed and coal production ramped up, as the government focused on easing energy prices to support the economy, in a policy that contradicts its carbon reduction goal. 

Joe Biden came into the US presidency resolute on combatting climate change and promoting a clean energy transition. But Russia’s war in Ukraine has resulted in rising prices for oil and gas domestically and abroad, prompting increased oil flow—a far cry from his pledge to wean Americans off oil and other fossil fuels and cut planet-warming emissions in half by 2030.

With cooperation comes competition 

As the US and China—the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters—must work together for the world to reach its low-carbon goals, competition should continue to thrive between both super powers, said green finance experts.

“Green development is soft power—which China and the US want to expand on. If the US and China can cooperate on standards that provide a level playing field, and can accelerate technology development and investment through competition, we ideally see a race to the top benefitting all,” Christoph Nedopil, director of the Green Finance and Development Center at Fanhai International School of Finance, Fudan University, told Eco-Business.

Green development is soft power—which China and the US want to expand on.

Christoph Nedopil, director, Green Finance and Development Center, Fanhai International School of Finance, Fudan University

Steven Okun, senior advisor of geostrategic consultancy McLarty Associates, noted how the US strategy towards China—investing domestically, aligning with allies and partners while competing with China—provides the ability to also work together with China to address the climate crisis.

“Such a policy assumes the US can confront China in certain regards while simultaneously cooperating with China in working towards a solution to the climate crisis, as it is in both the US and China’s national interest to do so,” Okun told Eco-Business.

“Countries in the past have not sacrificed their national interest to get another government to act in what should be that own government’s national interest, and one should not expect the US to do so now.”

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →