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All eyes on China, US at upcoming UN Climate Change Conference

DePaul environmental diplomacy expert discusses what he wants to hear from the two global powers

Phillip Stalley
Phillip Stalley, the endowed professor of environmental diplomacy in the Grace School of Applied Diplomacy, researches how to build diplomatic bridges in environmental policy, with a special focus on China’s evolving approach to environmental diplomacy. (DePaul University/Randall Spriggs)

For two weeks in early November, the nations of the world will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to negotiate updates to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the landmark agreement in which more than 190 countries pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

With temperatures rising and extreme weather occurring across the globe, all eyes at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be on China, the leading producer of greenhouse gases, and the United States, the largest emitter both historically and on a per capita basis.

Keeping an eye on the results of the conference will be Phillip Stalley, the endowed professor of environmental diplomacy in DePaul University’s Grace School of Applied Diplomacy. Stalley’s research centers on building diplomatic bridges in environmental policy, with a special focus on China’s evolving approach to environmental diplomacy. He’s the author of “Foreign Firms, Investment, and Environmental Regulation in the People’s Republic of China.”

In this Q&A, Stalley discusses the upcoming climate conference and the roles of the United States and China.

With recent studies affirming the dire climate situation, what do you anticipate the United States and China — the two largest climate polluters — will say at the Glasgow conference?

A recent report by Chatham House estimates that, even if countries implement their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, under the original Paris Agreement, we still have a less than 5% chance of keeping global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, which is the stated goal of Paris. Without stronger action, the fires, floods and other extreme weather we have all witnessed recently will be a lot worse.

The key question for Glasgow and beyond is whether China and the United States can be convinced to offer more ambitious climate targets in their NDCs. For instance, China currently has its “30-60” pledge, which refers to its twin goals of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. Neither is consistent with the 2-degree target. The hope is that China, either in Glasgow or in the not-too-distant future, will move forward its peak dates and offer a specific cap for its total energy-related CO2 emissions, rather than just a peak year.

On the U.S. side, some of the biggest questions involve implementation and finance. President Joe Biden has pledged to slash U.S. emissions in half by 2030, but given Republican opposition, can he pass the domestic legislation necessary to achieve that goal? In terms of finance, Biden recently announced he will work with Congress to provide $11.4 billion to aid developing countries fighting climate change. If the United States wants other countries to do more, it will need to prove it can contribute more to the $100 billion climate finance goal agreed to in Paris.

Will other countries be willing to listen to a new U.S. administration talk about the need for climate action now when the United States only a few years ago left the Paris Climate Accord?

It is certainly true that the United States’ uneven track record undermines its credibility in international negotiations and inhibits its ability to influence other countries. U.S. diplomats will struggle in Glasgow if Biden cannot get the infrastructure and budget bills through Congress, both of which provide extensive funding for programs to combat climate change.

It’s worth noting, however, that U.S. state and municipal governments also play an important role in climate change diplomacy. After then-President Donald Trump announced America’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Accord, governors from roughly two dozen states formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to abide by the Paris targets. Additionally, despite the Trump administration’s public stance against climate regulations, more coal power was retired during Trump's four years than were in former president Barack Obama’s second term.

Are there other types of non-traditional diplomacy and advocacy that could help persuade the United States and China to take action around climate change?

There are many opportunities for non-traditional diplomacy to exert influence on both countries’ approach to climate change. This is evident, for instance, in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent announcement that China will stop supporting coal power projects overseas. The reasons for this decision are complex and include commercial considerations, but part of the explanation is that Beijing was facing a great deal of pressure, from not only foreign governments, but also activists, experts and NGOs across the world. Beijing’s decision represents a victory for all the diplomats and activists who have been fighting for years to stop the funding of overseas coal.


Phillip Stalley

Media contact:
Russell Dorn
312-956-2176 cell