- Many fear tensions between Washington and Beijing could make climate cooperation at COP27 extremely difficult.
- "The U.S. being the biggest historical emitter and China being the biggest emitter now, if they come together and say that we are going to be working in harmony, it is going to send a very positive signal," Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network, told CNBC.
- "And we need such a signal because we are in a very bleak scenario," Singh said.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Fraying diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China are a big concern at the COP27 climate summit.
U.N. chief Antonio Guterres called for a historic agreement — or "climate solidarity pact" — between developed and emerging economies at the start of the flagship climate conference.
The U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies and top greenhouse gas emitters, "have a particular responsibility to join efforts to make this pact a reality," Guterres said on Monday.
"This is our only hope of meeting our climate goals."
However, many fear tensions between Washington and Beijing could make climate cooperation at COP27 extremely difficult.
Carlos Pascual, senior vice president of global energy at S&P Global Commodity Insights, told CNBC that tensions between the U.S. and China "are going to have a cost on the global security agenda, the political agenda and the climate agenda."
U.S. President Joe Biden's administration in recent months identified China as an even bigger threat than Russia in its National Security Strategy, and the White House warned Beijing it would come to Taiwan's defense if it was invaded.
For its part, China accused the U.S. of sending "very wrong, dangerous signals" on Taiwan following a visit there in August by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Beijing also criticized a U.S. law that aims to boost processor chip production in the U.S. and reduce reliance on Asian suppliers.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is not scheduled to attend the conference, although the country has reportedly sent a delegation of more than 50 people to the event.
"For developing and emerging economies, their perception is that if the two largest emitters in the world cannot agree and cannot work together to reduce their emissions then what is the purpose of reducing their emissions because in relative terms it has such a tiny impact," S&P's Pascual said.
"One of the things China has been very clear on is that for them, the question for Taiwan was such an important and existential issue that if there is a conflict over Taiwan and a sense that the United States is advancing interests that are against the interests of China, then that will override cooperation in every other sector," he added. "That is extremely problematic and worrisome."
The strained diplomatic relationship could even spill over into trade issues throughout Asia, Pascual added, noting that China is the principal trading partner of virtually every nation in the region.
Former U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa told CNBC that, in the past, climate talks had benefited from the U.S. and China's leadership, citing a surprise agreement between Washington and Beijing to boost climate cooperation at last year's COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
"I personally hope that there could be a way of ... restarting the cooperation between China and the U.S. – even if it is just on climate change. We say it is just on climate change, but we know that climate change is really at the center of everything in society."
"Having that restored would be very, very important," Espinosa said, however she added that she does not expect this to happen in Sharm el-Sheikh.
"I, however, would hope that others can step up and take up leadership where at the moment, for very different reasons, these two big and great countries are not currently working together in this space. It is not only up to them. It is a collective responsibility," she said.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has previously said Washington stands ready to hold talks on climate with China and work together on "what is a universal, global [and] existential issue."
"And there is no solution to the problem of climate change without China, without Russia, without India, without … large economies being at the table," Kerry said.
A flurry of major U.N. reports published in recent weeks delivered a grim assessment of how close the planet is to irreversible climate breakdown, warning there is "no credible pathway" in place to cap global heating at the critical temperature threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network, which includes more than 1,500 civil society groups, stressed that although the issues between the U.S. and China are very complex, countries have to put aside their political disagreements when it comes to the climate.
"The U.S. being the biggest historical emitter and China being the biggest emitter now, if they come together and say that we are going to be working in harmony, it is going to send a very positive signal. And we need such a signal because we are in a very bleak scenario," Singh said.
"Time is ticking away, and such partnerships are going to encourage others to do more and actually tackle the climate crisis."