(Bloomberg) — US Climate Envoy John Kerry arrived in China on Sunday for three full days of talks that will test the ability of the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters to collaborate in the fight against global warming despite deep discord over other issues.
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Kerry’s visit is the latest front in a diplomatic push aimed at reestablishing connections between the superpowers that frayed amid tensions over export controls and human rights, as well as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last August. It will also mark the first protracted climate negotiations between the two countries in nearly a year, since Beijing severed consultation on that and other issues in the wake of Pelosi’s controversial visit.
Kerry, a former US secretary of state tapped to be special presidential envoy for climate two years ago, said he is seeking “candid conversations” with Chinese officials and hoping to forge progress in paring releases of the potent greenhouse gas methane, while hastening the transition away from coal and deploying renewable power.
“What we want to do is find ways to see if China and the US can advance the cause together for the rest of the world by accelerating rates of doing things, by increasing the deployment of renewables, by improving grid management,” Kerry told lawmakers in a congressional hearing Thursday. “If we can make some progress on that, we think we can tampen down this edgy sense of competition which could lead to a mistake which takes you to a place you didn’t mean to go to.”
From Monday, China and the US will have an “in-depth” exchange of views on cooperation to deal with climate change, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported, confirming Kerry’s plane had landed in Beijing on Sunday.
Still, experts in climate diplomacy cautioned against expectations for any significant breakthrough — like the two countries’ milestone 2014 agreement to cooperate on the issue that helped pave the way for the landmark Paris Agreement a year later. Instead, they said, a successful outcome would be formally restarting talks and reviving a joint working group they agreed to form in November 2021.
“A critical thing to observe in this visit if there are further steps envisioned, what those steps are, and how explicit the steps will be laid out by both sides,” said Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia. The trip might not “resolve anything on paper immediately,” but it could lay a foundation for future statements or commitments, he said.
Deliberations between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, this week could help foster eventual pronouncements at the UN General Assembly in September, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit in California and the UN climate summit in Dubai, said Jake Schmidt, a strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Neither US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen nor US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emerged from their recent visits to China with sweeping declarations. But the trips underscored a Biden administration commitment to smoothing the turbulence between Washington and Beijing.
On climate the countries share some common ground, in part because of their outsize emissions. The US, now the No. 2 largest greenhouse gas emitter globally, is responsible for more of the planet-warming pollution in the atmosphere historically than any other nation, having burned coal, oil and natural gas to fuel decades of economic growth. But China now unleashes more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country.
Both nations also are robust investors in clean energy — and specifically committed to collaborate on the issue in a 2021 joint statement. Still, even that issue is fraught. Beijing chafes at tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels. And the US helped advance a Group of Seven plan to bolster critical minerals security seen as a bid to curb China’s dominance as a major supplier for the materials used in semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries and other technology.
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Kerry already ruled out progress on some fronts — particularly getting China to back off from its long-held designation in UN climate deliberations as a developing country, a classification that has served to limit its formal financial contributions to climate-vulnerable nations. “That’s not going to happen in this visit,” he bluntly told lawmakers Thursday. “But the Chinese government understands this is a growing concern.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions will peak before the end of the decade — and in 2021 he pledged China would halt financing coal plants outside its borders. But inside the country, it’s racing to build them — with new plant permits hitting a seven-year high last year, according to data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
Back in Washington, Republicans have seized on that surge in coal capacity to question the wisdom of the US engaging China on climate. “They’re the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and have shown no signs of relenting,” said Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas. “They are held to a different standard than we are.”
(Updates with China state TV report in fifth paragraph.)
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