This past April the Biden Administration hosted dozens of world leaders at a climate change summit, where the United States urged them to reduce emissions, embrace green technology, and ensure that workers benefit from the transition to a clean-energy economy. The summit came just after the United States and China had released a joint statement committing to cooperation in addressing the climate crisis, by means including a strengthening of the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
But the summit did not include a question critically important to the goal of saving the planet: which type of political system these countries should embrace—in particular, a democratic or authoritarian one.
The question is not trivial. Evidence clearly shows that democracies are better stewards of the environment—because only in democracies can citizens hold leaders to account on issues including climate and conservation. Therefore, the climate agenda of the current administration is an important part of what Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as its commitment to strengthening democracy and human rights abroad.
Sustainable progress on the environment will require strengthening democracy globally, and the White House needs to make this connection. As the administration looks to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this fall, it can make the climate-democracy link explicit.
Democracies, especially those with effective anti-corruption regimes, have less urban air pollution than other types of regimes. Similarly, the relatively strong governance capacity displayed by robust democracies results in superior environmental policy measures and outcomes. Democracies exhibit stronger commitments to addressing climate change: They are more likely to sign and ratify multilateral environmental treaties, they designate larger areas of land as protected, and they participate in more international environmental organizations.
The expanded rights and stronger institutions brought about by successive “waves” of democratization have improved countries’ ability to deal with environmental concerns. True, a democratic form of government does not by itself guarantee that a given country will lead on the environment, at home or abroad; but democracy as a form of government gives a country’s people their best chance to do so, by means including the electoral defeat of leaders who don’t share citizens’ concerns.
In contrast, authoritarian regimes have negative consequences for the environment. While transparent federal regimes—like those in the United States and Australia—allow subnational governments to take positive steps toward reductions in CO2 emissions, highly centralized regimes like those of China and Russia tend to limit climate action at the provincial, regional, city, and other local levels.
Beijing touts the ability of its centralized system to develop and implement policy efficiently, including environmental policy. Yet because of the problems of information flows within authoritarian governments and the inability of independent civil society organizations to monitor policy efficacy, it is difficult to verify the relevant data and ascertain outcomes.
For example, local officials will submit bogus data on pollution reduction to appear attentive to central government dictates, but recognize that their career advancement ultimately depends on their meeting economic growth, rather than environmental, targets. The costs are clear: For instance, since the Paris accords, China has produced more greenhouse gases than the combined total of cuts by Europe and the United States.
China’s leaders have now prioritized climate change, agreed in principle to cooperate with the United States on the issue, and made progress on key domestic emissions targets. But Beijing, rather than shutting down its most polluting industries, has increasingly shifted them abroad. In other words, China is exporting its high-pollution coal industry across the world even as it touts its clean-energy policies at home. At the same time, Beijing is offering its surplus of coal-related equipment and technology to countries that are desperate for industry, undermining the global push to phase out coal.
A quarter of the energy projects that China funds through its Belt and Road Initiative are coal-fired stations. The 140 countries that have signed on to Belt and Road infrastructure projects produce nearly 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Mining projects undertaken by Chinese companies are responsible for mounting environmental problems in numerous countries. And China’s opaque investment and business practices are bringing about weakened environmental protections and laws in countries across the developing world.
Democratic backsliding and the persistence of authoritarianism threaten the U.S. climate agenda. Looking forward, the United States can contribute to achieving climate goals by ensuring that U.S. foreign assistance strengthens democratic institutions abroad, so that citizen majorities around the world can hold their governments accountable on climate commitments.
U.S. support of transparency can have immediate environmental benefits by enabling governments to adopt and enforce more rigorous environmental safeguards. For example, democracies have successfully pushed international agencies like the World Bank to require such protections in their assistance to developing countries: This standard was part of the much criticized “conditionality” that China-backed multilateral organizations, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, find relatively unattractive. The United States should continue to promote these international standards in global forums.
The United States can also advance its climate agenda through the assistance it provides in strengthening other countries’ core institutions of democracy. U.S. support to democratic legislatures, as through the House Democracy Partnership, can include lessons learned in environmental policy development and implementation, including the costs and benefits of various methods. U.S. assistance to political parties, which helps them organize around policy platforms rather than personalities, can include components on environmental policy formation and execution. This should be an attractive proposition for party representatives, since voters throughout the world cite climate action as a political priority.
Vibrant civil societies including independent watchdog groups contribute to better environmental outcomes by informing and helping track implementation of climate-related policies. For instance, civil society organizations push back on corrupt officials who sign polluting investment deals with China that weaken environmental protections. U.S. assistance to civil society organizations should not only bolster their ability to hold governments accountable in this way but provide the lessons and resources they need to expose and protest the environmental impact of Chinese investments.
Advocacy campaigns, especially those led by young people, have helped push governments to adopt and implement climate- and environment-friendly policies. In 2018 and 2019, for example, youth-led climate strike movements influenced climate change policies in several countries. The United Kingdom passed legislation to eliminate its carbon footprint, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the goal of phasing out coal mining in Germany by 2038, and French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France would no longer sign trade agreements with countries that had not signed the Paris Agreement. U.S. support for advocates, including youth-led movements, can include both direct assistance through seed funding and international networking and mentorship for young leaders.
The United States and China are competing over which political system will govern a preponderant proportion of the world’s countries. One regime is rooted in openness and freedom, the other in centralized control and repression. This contest will determine whether the world’s citizens enjoy basic rights and other individual liberties. It will also help decide the ecological future of the planet.
Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute (IRI). He was a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff during the George W. Bush Administration and served as a foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain.
Patrick Quirk is senior director for strategy, research, and the Center for Global Impact at IRI, and a non-resident fellow in the foreign policy program of the Brookings Institution. He served as a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff during the Trump Administration.
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