U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry recently returned from a diplomatic mission to Shanghai with a joint U.S.-China statement in hand which reaffirmed the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement: 

The United States and China 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. 

Moving forward, the United States and China are firmly committed to working together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement. The two sides recall the Agreement’s aim in accordance with Article 2 to hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C. In that regard, they are committed to pursuing such efforts, including by taking enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s in the context of the Paris Agreement with the aim of keeping the above temperature limit within reach and cooperating to identify and address related challenges and opportunities. 

As great as this sounds, diplomatic statements can be a far cry from actual policy change. 

China is by far the world’s largest carbon emission producer. They have made climate commitments time and again but their actions show that their real interest is in growing their influence and global market share, not reducing carbon emissions. 

Take, for example, China’s actions this past summer. While papers like the New York Times hailed China as being poised to become an international climate leader, China was in the midst of a new coal boom. Unsurprisingly, after the fallout of the COVID pandemic, the country’s leaders prioritized rebuilding their economy, taking the fast and easy way to revitalize its energy sector, over any vague commitments to a “green transition.” (I wrote more about that here.)

Kerry may do all the diplomatic maneuvering he likes, but no one should expect that China will be curbing its emissions anytime soon. If anything, China will continue to build out its influence (especially with its Belt and Road Initiative), producing ever-moving climate and emissions “targets,” while the rest of the world cripples their economies and energy security by pushing to convert to relying on expensive and intermittent energy sources like wind and solar power.

China may talk a good game about the climate, but the U.S. and its allies should be cautious about believing any of it and pay much more attention to China’s deeds than its words.