After COP26, here’s how the US and China can show real leadership on climate change

November 23, 2021 GMT

When it comes to climate change, there should be no excuses. The ongoing negligence and lack of decisive steps from governments and politicians should be identified or even penalised if proper action is not taken to avert the destruction of our planet.

We are not talking about hypothetical delusions, such as the threat of being invaded by aliens, but the actual consequences of our own unrestrained consumerism that are literally set to kill us.

Sadly, the neoliberal set at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow decided to engage in, to quote Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, “a two week celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah” ” at a huge cost to UK taxpayers.

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With 45,264 of the 53,374 tonnes of carbon dioxide generated at past COP conferences coming from air travel to the meeting, and streets around the venue clogged with chauffeur-driven vehicles, many with their engines idling, according to a reporter at the scene, the summit would have been better off opting for a virtual format.

Nevertheless, US President Joe Biden and the rest of the Western political class portrayed Chinese President Xi Jinping as a villain for not attending the event, although Beijing had a delegation on the ground and announced a new action plan ahead of COP26.

“Responding to climate change requires unbending determination and sustained action, not empty slogans, unchanging policies, luxury motorcades and crowded entourages,” said Zhang Jun, China’s senior envoy to the United Nations.

The US-China joint declaration agreed at Glasgow is far more important than COP26 itself, especially as, according to Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times, “the UN climate process is designed to fail”.

In fact, while the UK government sought to host “the most inclusive COP ever”, environmental activists have labelled the event “the most exclusionary ever” in part because of the lack of participants from the Global South.


The two biggest economies and polluters, the US and China, have a responsibility to the rest of the world. While the two countries seem to prefer to clash with each other, a pattern repeated in the first week of the summit, we are now at a point when they must cooperate to save not only themselves, but also those who are indirectly dependent on them. In other words, they need to prove their global leadership.

This should include helping Africa, which according to the World Metrological Organization, has warmed at a faster rate than the global average.

Notably, Africa’s 54 nations contribute only about 3 per cent of global emissions, while the Group of 20 countries are responsible for almost 80 per cent of global greenhouse gases and an equal amount of carbon dioxide. The Global North accounts for 92 per cent of excess carbon emissions since the dawn of the industrial age.

It is unfair to allow those who have done the least to cause climate change to suffer most from its impact.

Since developed nations have so far been reluctant to acknowledge financial responsibility for the years of emissions that contributed to climate change while they rose to economic prosperity, the US and China should take a lead in raising the needed funds.

First, they should immediately address the shortfall in the US$100 billion a year that rich nations pledged in 2009 to provide for developing countries by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change. The US and China should ensure that developed countries immediately scale up their aid efforts.

The world does not have the luxury of waiting until the new date of 2023 for a promise that was made years ago.

Second, vulnerable nations should be offered compensation for climate-linked losses and damage, as initially promised in 1992 in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The International Mechanism for Loss and Damage was introduced in 2013 at COP19 in Warsaw, and a group responsible for providing technical assistance to countries making damage claims, known as the Santiago Network, was created in 2019 at COP25 in Madrid. However, the network seems to be inactive.

Although it is difficult to estimate how much would be needed to cover economic losses arising out of climate devastation, one study suggests it could amount to US$580 billion each year by the end of 2030, and could rise to US$1 trillion by 2040.

While the cost of averting climate injustice is high, the cost of further inaction is significantly higher and the damage irreversible.

Progress on these issues can be made through the US and China’s joint economic clout, yet it requires the political will on both sides to put their differences aside.

As Felix Tshisekedi, chair of the African Union, warned, the global fight against climate change “can’t be won unless it is won in Africa”, inhabited by 1.3 billion people.

Washington and Beijing plan to establish a working group that will “meet regularly to address the climate crisis and advance the multilateral process, focusing on enhancing concrete actions in this decade”.

Policymakers in both capitals would be well-advised to take Tshisekedi’s words to heart. Indeed, “every step matters” ” as US climate envoy John Kerry put it ” in this long journey to save the planet and the human species.

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer, and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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