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Smoke comes out of a chimney near cables from a high speed train traveling from Beijing to neighboring Zhangjiakou in northwestern China's Hebei province on Dec. 15, 2020.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

There was so much cause for optimism when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a surprise pledge last fall to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. With the world’s largest-emitting country firmly on board, it seemed a climate change corner had been turned.

The message last week, when Mr. Xi’s government presented its new five-year economic plan, was more disheartening: Not so fast.

The progress toward sustainability China expects to make over that period is modest at best. Greenhouse gas emissions relative to gross domestic product are projected to decline by 18 per cent – the same carbon-intensity reduction rate as over the previous five years. Total emissions are forecast to keep rising past 2025, amid expectations for continued robust economic growth. Despite leading in some clean-technology production and adoption, from electric vehicles to wind energy, China is poised to carry on some of its most damaging activities – including adding yet more coal power plants.

This turn of events calls for heavy pressure from other governments on Beijing to do better – in a pivotal year. As economies are being rebuilt postpandemic, countries will commit to new emissions reduction targets (to replace those in the Paris Agreement) at the United Nations climate conference in November. The window to hold global warming to under 1.5 or even two degrees, beyond which effects would be catastrophic, is rapidly closing – leaving no time to push heavy lifting to future decades, as China apparently intends.

It’s also going to force other world leaders to make some very difficult calculations about how to constructively engage on climate, at a time when China’s human-rights abuses (persecution of its Uyghur minority in particular) and aggressive economic nationalism make any co-operation highly fraught.

That’s a challenge for U.S. President Joe Biden, as he tries to place his country back at the forefront of the climate fight. With Mr. Biden planning to play host to his own climate summit in April, to which Mr. Xi will be invited, his climate envoy, John Kerry, has spoken of the need to “compartmentalize” climate from other Sino-American relations.

It stands to be even more difficult for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, given how Canada has been affected by China’s recent conduct.

In years past, Ottawa would have been well positioned for this climate diplomacy. Canada was among the first countries to significantly engage with Beijing on environmental policy, including helping it establish the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development – an advisory body for China’s government – in the 1990s. As recently as 2017, Ottawa worked with China and the European Union to launch annual ministerial meetings on climate change.

That history might have made Canada a useful bridge between China and the U.S. heading into this year’s talks. In an interview, Kevin Tu – a Beijing-based non-resident fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy – described Canada as “an important middle power” that’s “well positioned to play a constructive role.”

As Mr. Tu acknowledged, that’s not a realistic expectation now. Playing nice with Beijing is not palatable, owing to China’s imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

“I think it’s harder for us to compartmentalize than it is for the U.S.,” says Gordon Houlden, the director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

But there are still ways for Canada to participate in a collective effort to get China to adopt more ambitious emissions reduction goals and plans to meet them.

With Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau touting a continental approach to climate policy, there is some opportunity to work behind the scenes to help shape U.S. thinking toward Beijing. This seems especially important heading into Mr. Biden’s summit, which is a chance for like-minded countries to form a united front – and lead by example with their own commitments – before the UN conference.

Perhaps more useful, if no less a minefield, is to work at what Mr. Houlden calls the “niche” level. By that, he means engagement – not so much by politicians – in specific areas where Canada has resources that could help China’s decarbonization. (Canada could also stand to learn from China on various clean-technology fronts.)

Mr. Houlden offered biodiversity and nature-based solutions as examples of where Canadian expertise could be valuable; likewise environmental review processes. Mr. Tu cited fuel cell technology and emissions reduction in “hard-to-abate” sectors such as steel and concrete. He also mentioned natural gas exports to help China reduce its reliance on coal – a contentious form of transition among environmentalists, but one Mr. Trudeau’s government supports to a limited extent.

Some sharing of research and trade of climate-friendly goods and services will also likely continue, regardless of governmental relations. Even amid diplomatic tensions, total trade between the two countries went up last year.

But given the degree of state intervention across China’s economy, other governments often need to help smooth the path for private-sector engagement. That may be especially true in the strategically important area of energy policy. So, Ottawa needs to consider whether there are avenues to step up support for mutually beneficial green initiatives, without getting too cozy.

Not that co-operation is the only approach that could reap positive climate effects. Clean-tech competition, between China and the U.S. and its allies, should in some ways accelerate decarbonization solutions.

And it’s possible that punitive trade policies – such as carbon border adjustments, which Canada and the U.S. are considering working on together – will give China incentives to focus more on emissions from its carbon-intensive industries.

But on a shared interest as basic as the future of the planet, finding ways to work together is a matter of both moral obligation and self-interest.

China accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the world’s total emissions. Its foreign investment is helping shape developing economies, especially in Africa. It has too much control over our long-term health to be isolated on climate policy, no matter how good the immediate reasons.

Compartmentalizing won’t be easy. But with tensions on other fronts unlikely to evaporate soon, it’s something that all concerned will have to try.

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