“Both China and the United States were blessed and cursed with gigantic natural energy resource endowments in the form of coal. Coal was a blessing because it fueled the Industrial Revolution, contributing to the economic development and poverty alleviation of both nations. It was a curse because coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel and the leading culprit in greenhouse gas emissions, conventional air pollution, acid rain, and health problems related to all of the above.”
—Kelly Sims Gallagher and Xiaowei Xuan, Titans of the Climate, p. 16
In April, the International Energy Agency announced that global CO2 emissions rose by 1.7% to an historic annual high of 33.1 gigatons (Gt). Coal alone added 10 Gt. The United States, India, and China accounted for 85% of the net increase.
In Titans of the Climate: Explaining Policy Process in the United States and China (MIT Press, 2018), Kelly Sims Gallagher and Xiaowei Xuan have penned a comprehensive and illustrative rendering of how the United States and China devise and implement their respective climate policies. Since the fate of the entire planet hinges on these countries – the two largest emitters by far – Titans is exceedingly timely. That, so far, each has failed miserably makes it even more so. Failure has not come necessarily from a lack of interest in addressing climate but from politics in the United States, implementation in China, and mistrust between the two.
This collaboration between Gallagher and Xuan, both experts of their respective countries, provides an ideal introduction for students to global climate policy, U.S. and Chinese policymaking, energy regimes, and international politics. Titans attempts, and succeeds admirably, in distilling an incredibly complex subject with a vast array of actors, in a way that makes it all more understandable. Most importantly, it reveals how both powers will navigate their energy and climate competition and cooperation going forward.
The United States has long been the world’s dirtiest polluter thanks to coal, before China claimed the title for the same reason in 2007. In 2018, U.S. emissions increased 3.1% to 4.9 Gt, while Chinese emissions shot up 2.5% to 9.5 Gt. At the same time, China massively outpaces the United States every year in bringing more renewables online. In 2018, it brought 77 GW of new capacity compared to 18 GW in the United States and 22 GW in the European Union.
These competing narratives contribute to misunderstanding. The rise of CO2 emissions in the U.S. reversed years of decline under Obama, when natural gas replaced coal and greener policies were enacted. The Trump White House has cast aside these policies, placing a premium on coal, oil and gas production. Past U.S. transgressions and Trump’s attention-seeking politics, however, obfuscate the fact that China deserves more blame. China may not have left the Paris Agreement and calls climate change a serious problem, but actions are what count. It’s easy to see why Trump’s supporters believe him when he calls climate change a hoax (p. 156-9).
The fundamental contradiction for both countries to fight climate change is coal (p. 15-7). China’s recoverable reserves are nearly in line with those of the United States at roughly 250,000 million tons in 2016. Each represents roughly 21 percent of the world’s total. As the largest importer of oil and natural gas, China cannot simply jettison its domestic coal resources, which have been central to its economic rise.
Congress is the primary obstacle to U.S. climate action. Even under Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama, it blocked measures to encourage renewables, cut emissions, and join international climate agreements due to the influence of special interests.
Top-down or bottom-up
Titans aims to push back against finger-pointing and illuminate the reality of policymaking (p. 38-41). The biggest misconception about China is that Beijing can simply issue and enforce a policy from on top.
Though directed from on high, China has surprising difficulty implementing policies at the local level. Local leaders often face several policy directives at once and move in cumbersome, contradictory ways. China can also be characterized as bottom-up in that it casts about for policy ideas from academic and policy studies and often launches pilot projects first in provinces before initiating them nationally. The United States, also contrary to perception, can more easily enforce regulations and therefore enact policy on the ground more seamlessly than China (p. 46-54, 68-80).
Climate policy in the United States, on the other hand, is more mixed. While presidents initiate actions and direct the regulatory regime, the anti-climate Congress must fund them. Nevertheless, U.S. states can design, implement, and enforce their own climate policies. In many policy areas in the past, the federal government has followed the lead of states and later adopted their policies (p. 43-6, 59-68). What is most disheartening, still, is how little power U.S. citizens have in driving climate solutions. To me, Titans glossed over the overarching power of special interests in silencing people on climate. State powers are not enough to call U.S. climate policy “bottom-up” (p. 151).
Question of globalism
Another peculiarity is that the capitalist United States has so far failed to embrace market-based policies, whereas communist China has. Ten U.S. states have implemented cap-and-trade systems, but none exists nationally. China, on the other hand, has experimented with seven such programs at the subnational level, imposing fees on polluters. It has also deployed a host of incentives to encourage cleaner practices. Its state-owned enterprises, moreover, play a role in realizing climate policy throughout the value chain (p. 54-7).
Readers will perhaps most want to know why the United States has fled from international agreements – first Kyoto and now Paris – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Abnegating global leadership on the issue seems antithetical to U.S. interests. The answer, Gallagher and Xuan argue, is cultural.
The U.S. Senate and right-wing conservative thinkers are unwilling to subsume U.S. interests to international bodies. U.S. leadership comes before multilateralism, a view widely accepted in American culture. Taking care of Americans trumps the concerns of the world. The Chinese, on the other hand, do not ascribe to such individualism, partly due to the Confucian system, which demands individuals to have responsibility to others. The Chinese also have a desire to be taken seriously on the global stage. Lastly, its top-down structure permits leaders to join agreements without first getting the people’s approval.
The central flaw of Titans is that its research comes from the pre-Trump era. Shelf life is always a challenge with energy, but reading Titans can feel as though we are trying to understand a world that no longer exists. Two chapters cover the formation of targets for emissions-reductions and their implementation. The insights here are historically important, but are ultimately relevant to Paris (p. 85-132). I would encourage readers to soak up these insights, nevertheless. The climate crisis will only worsen, and future U.S. presidents will simply have to address it. The energy transition, moreover, will last for several decades. Perhaps the authors can pen a second edition in 2021 to reorient their findings?
The power struggle between the United States and China will define the next several decades of international politics. This falls along predictable fault lines of security and trade, but energy and climate are critical fault lines in their own right. The United States eclipsed Britain as oil eclipsed coal – will China eclipse the United States as renewables eclipse fossil fuels? It is an open question. The previous transition was peaceful between the United States and Britain. We can only hope that the coming transition is similar.
Titans makes an important contribution to this question. It deserves to be read by those who think about all matters related to U.S.-China relations, climate change, and great power rivalry. With knowledge, comes understanding.