Escalating tensions between China and the United States have spilled into their talks over how to stop global warming from hitting catastrophic levels after Chinese officials warned the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, that political ill will could undermine cooperation.
Kerry emerged Thursday from 2 1/2 days of discussions in the northern city of Tianjin, where Chinese leaders made what he described as “pointed” comments about the worsening relationship. Kerry, a former secretary of state, said he told the officials he was focused on staving off the worst effects of climate change.
“My response to them was, ‘Hey look, climate is not ideological. It’s not partisan, it’s not a geostrategic weapon or tool, and it’s certainly not day-to-day politics. It’s a global, not bilateral, challenge,’” he said on a call with reporters.
And, Kerry said, when it comes to tackling climate change, “We think China can do more.”
Kerry said he and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, agreed to meet again before international negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. Leaders from nearly 200 countries will try to agree on intensified efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and money to help the poorest nations prepare for the effects of global warming.
Hopes for a breakthrough in Glasgow rest heavily on whether China and the United States, the two largest emitters of planet-warming pollution, can build momentum. Kerry said Chinese leaders briefed him on plans for cutting emissions, but added that any efforts will be insufficient as long as China continues to build the coal-fired power plants that are most responsible for planet-warming emissions.
Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above the preindustrial average — the point at which scientists say the effects of climate change will be catastrophic and irreversible — requires a dramatic turnaround of China’s coal trajectory, Kerry said he told Chinese leaders.
“Needless to say, adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200 or so coming online in the planning stage, if it went to fruition would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees,” he said, adding, “The stakes are very high.”
The talks reflected the precarious role that global warming has come to play in relations between the Biden administration and Xi Jinping, China’s leader. Climate change could spur the two countries to cooperate on developing emissions-cutting technology, but it is also a point of discord over whether the other side is pulling its weight.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have descended into rancor over China’s treatment of Muslim minorities, its dismantling of human rights in Hong Kong, and U.S. support for Taiwan.
On Wednesday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned Kerry that antagonism from the United States on those and other fronts could hobble climate cooperation.
“The United States should stop regarding China as a threat and adversary,” Wang told Kerry, according to the Chinese foreign ministry. Work between the two nations on climate change, he said, “cannot possibly be divorced” from other geopolitical tensions.
“The U.S. side hopes that climate cooperation can be an ‘oasis’ in China-U. S. relations, but if that ‘oasis’ is surrounded by desert, it will also become desertified sooner or later,” Wang added.
Still, Kerry and Xie have both described global warming as a threat that demands all countries work together. Signs of climate disruption this year — ferocious floods in China and Europe, supercharged hurricanes lashing the southern and northeast United States, and drought and fires afflicting the West Coast — have underscored what is at stake.
“I’ve made it clear consistently in all my comments wherever I am around the world that we’re behind the eight ball sufficiently that we need to reach for the highest ambition,” Kerry told reporters.
Administration officials said Kerry and Xie had held about 18 meetings since the start of the Biden administration, a sign that both are committed to striking a deal. Kerry, 77, and Xie, 71, both came out of retirement after President Joe Biden took office. Kerry on Thursday said his conversations with Xie focused entirely on climate change, and while other officials “wanted the message to be heard” on a range of issues, those concerns did not dominate the discussions.
“Kerry and Xie have been able to carve out a channel for ongoing communication on climate change, which is extremely valuable right now,” Joanna I. Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University who studies Chinese climate policy, said by email. “Yet it is increasingly difficult to fully insulate climate change from the broader tensions.”
Tensions over climate action go back two decades, even before China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The latest friction centers on calls from the Biden administration and other governments for China to accelerate the phasing-out of coal at home and end the financing of coal power overseas.
Now the United States and other countries are pressing China to agree on seeking to limit global warming this century to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. That target would require nations to make steeper and more immediate cuts than agreed to under the accord reached in Paris in 2015.
China’s leader, Xi, declared last year that China’s emissions would peak before 2030, and that by 2060 the country would reach carbon neutrality — releasing no more carbon dioxide into the air than it removes through new technologies and growing forests.
Keeping the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees will be nigh impossible, though, unless China halts its emissions growth in the next few years, if not immediately, and reaches carbon neutrality by 2050. China’s annual carbon dioxide emissions are about the same as those of the next three biggest emitters combined: the United States, the European Union and India.
China’s latest five-year development plan, released in March, indicated that the government could allow coal consumption — the main source of emissions — to grow for years, offsetting the country’s rapid advances in solar and wind power.
“Kerry and his team are completely focused on this decade, keeping 1.5 alive,” said Todd Stern, who served as the U.S. climate envoy under former President Barack Obama.
China may be more open to Kerry’s call to curtail construction of coal plants abroad. Countries such as Vietnam and Pakistan that turned to China for coal plants have been pulling back from projects.
Ailun Yang, head of international climate initiatives at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said ending financing for overseas coal is important, but convincing China to end domestic use is critical. The summit in Glasgow, she said, will not be meaningful “if you don’t somehow get China, which has half of the world’s coal, to say something about an end date.”
China has its own doubts about American resolve, with former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement still fresh.
Biden returned to the accord and pledged that the United States would cut emissions 50%-52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Still, the United States is not quite on track to meet its current goal of cutting emissions up to 28% by 2025. Meeting the even steeper targets will require passage of legislation that faces serious political hurdles in Congress — a fact not lost on Chinese leaders.
“When the U.S. pushes for 1.5, it’s hard not to be cynical,” said Li Shuo, a Chinese analyst for Greenpeace. He said China could announce new measures, but probably not during Kerry’s visit, lest leaders be seen as bowing to pressure.
“If you understand our political system, the contentious nature of the bilateral relationship, it would be political suicide,” he said.