Xie, Kerry hold 4-hour talks on climate; observers warn of US exerting pressure on China over the issue
Published: Jul 17, 2023 09:34 PM
Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy for climate change, shakes hands with visiting US climate envoy John Kerry ahead of their talks in Beijing on July 17, 2023. Photo: VCG

Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy for climate change, shakes hands with visiting US climate envoy John Kerry ahead of their talks in Beijing on July 17, 2023. Photo: VCG

China's special envoy for climate change Xie Zhenhua and visiting US climate envoy John Kerry held talks that reportedly lasted about four hours on Monday, which are seen as the latest effort to revive climate cooperation between the two countries and a positive signal for bilateral relations, currently at a historical low. 

With the topics of reducing methane emissions and coal use on the agenda, experts said that climate change cooperation is not an "ivory tower" or "safe house" for China-US relations, as the two sides face the complexity of "rivalry and cooperation", "divergences and shared responsibilities." 

Washington claims to seek climate cooperation while maintaining its suppression of Beijing in areas such as trade and technology, and has been flip-flopping on climate policy under partisan politics, creating obstacles for China-US cooperation in this field, some experts said. 

China is seeking substantial dialogue this week, and exchanges on climate and the green transition could contribute to improving China-US bilateral relations, Xie said on Monday, as officials from both sides gathered for three days of talks, Bloomberg reported. 

Kerry, who arrived in Beijing on Sunday for his third visit to China as US climate envoy, said he hoped China and the US would take "big steps that will send a signal to the world" about how seriously both sides take the common threat to humanity, according to Bloomberg. 

When asked about the details of the meeting on Monday, Mao Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that climate change is a common issue facing all of mankind. China will implement the spirit of the Bali meeting between the two heads of state, exchange in-depth views with the US on climate change issue and work together to address the issue, she said. 

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that Kerry would press Beijing not to "hide behind any kind of claim that they are a developing nation" in order to slow-roll efforts to cut emissions, referring to the bill passed by the House in March that seeks to remove China's "developing country" status. 

Although combating climate change is an area in which China and the US need to work together, some experts warned that the US would use the topic as a tool to contain China, pressuring it to take extra responsibilities and set more "ambitious" emission reduction targets that exceed its capabilities. 

Issues on the agenda 

On Monday, Kerry sought to push China on its coal use, even as he struck a conciliatory note, the New York Times reported. The US official also noted that his goal is to emerge from this week of talks with a substantive agreement around issues such as China's coal use and plans for curbing methane, a potent greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells.

The top priority of Kerry's visit is to make China specify the annual amount of greenhouse gas emissions and set a corresponding timetable, and it may further urge China to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and combat deforestation, Wang Peng, a distinguished research fellow of institute of state governance at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, told the Global Times on Monday. 

"Methane is particularly important for our cooperation," Kerry told a congressional hearing on Thursday in Washington, Reuters reported. "China agreed to have a methane action plan out of our prior talks in Glasgow (in 2021), and again in Sharm el-Sheikh" in November.

During those COP27 climate talks in 2022 in Egypt, Xie made an unexpected appearance at a meeting of the Global Methane Partnership, a US-EU led initiative aimed at slashing 2020-level methane emissions by 30 percent by the end of this decade, according to the media report. The US hopes China will unveil the plan with concrete measures to curb methane emissions from energy, agriculture and waste before the next UN climate conference, COP28, in December in Dubai.

Wang said methane emission cut will be a topic the US put pressure on China. 

Also, the US is likely to bring up issues such as improving the global carbon compensation market and meeting the survival needs of developing countries (and especially those of the Pacific Island Countries), strongly demanding that China set up an international fund and establish a corresponding compensation mechanism for failing to meet the standards, Wang noted. "As the global community has divergences on whether and how to provide compensation to developing countries, it's highly likely that the US will use this issue to press China." 

'Biggest obstacle' 

Cooperation on climate change could be the strategic guardrail for China and the US to stabilize relations, as some important agreements have been reached over the past decades despite the twists and turns in Washington's attitudes and policies on climate change. 

"Although the US government reached some important agreements on the global stage in addressing climate change, Congress failed to pass the relevant bills, making it difficult to turn its will to take equivalent responsibilities into concrete policies," Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Monday. 

As long as Congress doesn't enact these policies, they are not sustainable. If Republicans occupy the White House, some of the Democrats' current efforts will soon be dismissed, and such inconsistent, uncertain climate policies are the biggest obstacle to China-US climate cooperation, Li said. 

China has made solemn pledges to achieve carbon emissions peak by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060. It means that China, as a major developing country, will complete the most intensive carbon emissions reduction and realize carbon emissions peak and neutrality within the shortest time in the world.

The US claims of "China no longer being a developing country" are aimed at depriving China of opportunities and room for development, which is clearly turning the climate issue into a political tool in the China-US rivalry, experts said. 

"We need to be aware of the complexity that the climate change issue is about cooperation but also confrontation, shared interests and responsibilities but also divergences," Wang said. "Climate change issue is not an ivory tower or a safe house, as major-power competition will inevitably be in full swing in this area too."