What is happening?
US climate envoy John Kerry visited China last week (July 16-19) as he sought to improve bilateral ties over the climate issue. As the third high-level US official visiting China this year, Kerry met with premier Li Qiang (李强), his counterpart Xie Zhenhua (解振華), and Wang Yi (王毅)—substituting the foreign minister Qin Gang (秦剛) who has been missing for few weeks now—to discuss cooperation between China and the US on climate.
What did he bring to the negotiation table, and could the world’s biggest superpowers and polluters fix the current US-China diplomatic tensions by focusing on more neutral topic such as climate?
According to a European Commission report, China and the US both recorded an increase in the CO2 emissions in 2021. They remain the world’s biggest polluters, followed by the EU.
At the same time, current US-China relations are the worst in recent history. During last year’s Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (COP 27), Washington and Beijing resumed their climate dialogue which was, alongside other topics, suspended after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Therefore, both parties are now looking for less divisive topics to maintain some level of interaction. Cooperation over the climate issue could be one of them.
The timing of Kerry’s visit could not be more accurate as vast parts of the globe have been facing extreme weather during the last few weeks. China is reeling from floods and a stultifying heat wave, and US issues warnings from floods, tornadoes, and fires.
The agenda of Kerry’s trip included a discussion on the reduction of CO2 emissions, limiting coal use, curbing deforestation, and helping developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change. The US would like to see China halt the development of new coal-fueled power plants and participate in international funds on tackling global climate issues.
Presumably, the Chinese side would like the US to remove its recent tariffs on Chinese-manufactured solar panels. Beijing also objects to proposed US taxes on foreign steel and aluminum based on carbon emissions, which would affect Chinese exports. Both proposals remain very unlikely to be accepted, however.
Climate as a hostage
After the first day of meetings Kerry tweeted, “… the climate crisis demands that the world’s two largest economies work together to limit the Earth’s warming. We must take urgent action on a number of fronts, especially the challenges of coal and methane pollution.” “Our hope is that this can be the beginning of a new definition of cooperation and capacity to resolve differences between us,” Kerry told Wang Yi during the meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. While US would like to see the climate cooperation separate from politics and other US-China disputes, China views it differently.
When US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called on China to contribute to international climate funds during her visit in Beijing earlier this month, Beijing resisted. China prefers to keep its position of a “developing country” as stated in the UN’s climate convention, which means that it does not have to follow the same standards as the “developed countries” to support financially and technically the “economies in transition.”
Speaking at a national conference on environmental protection on Tuesday last week, Xi Jinping said, “China will follow its own path to cut carbon emissions.” However, he reassured that “China’s commitment to its duel carbon “雙碳” goals – reaching a carbon peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 – is “unwavering”.
Even though both countries recognize the global environmental crisis and individually tailor policies and investments to address it, the actual cooperation on tackling the climate crisis between the two has been an empty phrase which merely looks good on a paper. Chinese leaders do not want to keep climate issues independent from other political and diplomatic agendas such as Taiwan independence. During Kerry’s visit, Beijing made its position clear: China does not want the US to mentor them on climate, leaving Kerry–who signed the Paris Agreement on behalf of the USA with his granddaughter in his lap–disappointed.