Climate policy must transition from goal setting to implementation, say former U.S. and Chinese climate negotiators

Joint University of Chicago-Peking University event kicks off monthlong series

Major commitments from the United States and China have set the stage for concrete investments in emissions reductions in recent months. But according to climate negotiators, in order to retain credibility on the multilateral stage and drive investment from less motivated nations, the two countries must both make real progress toward implementing their own climate resolutions and learn to put aside broader differences to continue working together on this issue.

On Oct. 12, the University of Chicago and Peking University hosted the kickoff event for the UChicago-Peking University Joint Forum on Addressing the Climate and Energy Challenge. The opening event, co-organized with the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, included a virtual fireside chat on climate democracy between Jonathan Pershing, former Deputy to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry; and Ji Zou, former Deputy Director General of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation and was moderated by Lisa Friedman of The New York Times. The event also featured welcoming remarks from UChicago President Paul Alivisatos, Peking University’s President Gong Qihuang, and Consul General Zhao Jian.

Climate diplomacy between the United States and China has traditionally been a bright spot in international efforts to confront climate change and in the broader relationship between the two countries. As the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the pairing of China and the United States largely made the 2015 Paris Agreement possible and more recently paved the way for the Glasgow Climate Pact in 2021. However, recent events, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, have halted climate talks between the U.S. and China and thrown future cooperation into question.

Pershing and Zou are seasoned climate negotiators, having participated in many climate summits and worked with one another across the table for many years. The two discussed the leadership role of the U.S. and China and their need to demonstrate progress toward their own commitments to encourage the world to follow, as well as the necessity for the U.S. and China to rebuild at least single-issue political trust in this area.

According to Pershing: “I would like the U.S. and China to agree that climate change is too important not to take on at the most aggressive possible level. If we look at future damages and risks from climate change, they dwarf almost any other catastrophe we could imagine…. [Events like the recent flood in Pakistan that displaced 30 million people] is the best it’s going to be, not the worst. And for me, if we can’t put aside differences and move on this agenda, we’re going to have much, much more disaster to come.”

Zou summarized the theme of the evening when he said: “The climate issue is a global issue. We do need globalization in terms of trade, technology, finance to address that—to share technology, share our ideas, our experience and lessons learned. In that way, we can lower the global cost of emissions abatement. In that way, we will build up larger and stronger confidence to speed up the agenda of global climate [policies].”

The two university presidents echoed the need for international collaboration. Alivisatos said: “The most important challenges facing our world today are inherently global. The scale of the climate and energy challenge requires that larger conversations around policy and science be driven by international-level understanding and collaboration.”

Added Qihuang: “As important labs for innovation, universities must undertake addressing the climate and energy challenge as their academic mission and responsibility.”

Both discussants emphasized the importance of continued communication through unofficial channels between the U.S. and China, such as this event, even while formal negotiations are suspended. Continued discussions between people, academics, think tanks, and businesses maintain connections and keep up the exchange of ideas, which do ultimately filter up to official actors.

As Pershing noted: “This is not the first time there have been some difficult negotiations between our countries, and these ‘track 2’ and other mechanisms to continue the dialogue have been essential…. [But] at the end of the day, there’s going to have to be a conversation between the principals of both countries” to affect real change.

About the UChicago-Peking University Joint Forum

Throughout October and November, the UChicago-Peking University Joint Forum on Addressing the Climate and Energy Challenge will continue through a series of virtual discussions on the two nations’ roles and opportunities in combating and mitigating the effects of climate change in a variety of fields, including the humanities, corporate engagement, health, clean energy technologies and climate-resistant ecosystems. To register for upcoming events in the series or view recordings of past events, visit the event website.

This year’s event is conducted in partnership with Peking University’s premier Beijing Forum and is a continuation of the University of Chicago’s annual U.S.-China Forum series, supported by the China-United States Exchange Foundation. Each year, the U.S.-China Forum brings together renowned experts from the University of Chicago and China for high-level engagements focused on issues of importance to both countries and, by extension, the world. It is intended to spur long-term research collaborations between Chinese researchers and scholars at the University of Chicago. Past forums have addressed economic relations, urban innovation, water and urban development, energy policy, the arts, and welfare reform.