September 9, 2021

Asia

US/CHINA: Beijing rebuffs Kerry’s call to treat climate change as a standalone

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 4 mins)
  • Chinese leaders rejected a call from US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry to adopt more aggressive climate change targets.
  • Kerry’s interlocutors made clear that Beijing is unwilling to treat climate as a standalone issue separate from the tensions and stalemate on other issues.
  • Among possible new initiatives for Beijing to announce at COP26, a pledge to halt financing of coal power plants through the Belt and Road Initiative is the most likely.

Kerry met with senior Chinese officials in Tianjin on 1-3 September, including Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs Xie Zhenhua, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, top Communist Party foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, and Vice Premier Han Zheng, who also sits on the elite Politburo Standing Committee. Apart from the specific content of the meetings, the fact that Beijing arranged for Kerry to meet not only Xie, his direct counterpart, but also Wang, Yang, and Han illustrates the leadership’s hope for broader progress on improving bilateral relations.

Kerry’s interlocutors also made this hope explicit. Wang acknowledged that Washington wants climate to be an “oasis” in US-China relations but warned that “if the oasis is surrounded by desert, it will soon become desertified.” He said the US should take concrete actions on the list of complaints that Beijing presented to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during her visit to Tianjin in July. Chinese officials also referenced the Biden administration’s sanctions on solar equipment from Xinjiang as an obstacle to climate cooperation.

As previously noted, even if Beijing and Washington were willing to set aside other disputes and treat climate change as a standalone issue, the scope for concrete bilateral cooperation is modest. Rather than proposing specific areas of bilateral cooperation, however, Kerry sought to persuade Beijing to make three general commitments: accelerating the timeline for China’s carbon emissions to peak, ahead of the current target of 2030; endorsing the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; and an immediate moratorium on financing coal power plants abroad. Washington holds up its own commitments as a model: President Joe Biden has committed to cutting US emissions by 52% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline; net-zero power-sector emissions by 2035, and zero total emissions by 2050. But like other leaders of developing countries, Beijing believes that developed countries should bear a heavier burden, given their larger historical contributions to global emissions.

An optimistic interpretation of the latest talks is that Beijing is willing to take more aggressive action but does not want to appear to be bowing to US pressure. Among Kerry’s various appeals, a pledge to halt financing of foreign coal plants is the most politically feasible for Beijing and is therefore the most likely new commitment that the government could offer at COP26 in November. The government has already cancelled coal projects in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and announced no new foreign coal projects in the first half of this year, marking the first such period since the Belt and Road Initiative began in 2013. Beijing has not yet confirmed whether President Xi Jinping will personally attend COP26; an announcement that he will do so would raise the likelihood of new commitments.

Two days after Kerry’s visit ended, Alok Sharma, President of COP26 and British Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, arrived in Tianjin for his own talks with Xie. Sharma’s requests to China are similar, if not identical, to Kerry’s, but Beijing may be more receptive to British persuasion. Ahead of the visit, Sharma referenced a possible acceleration of China’s peak emissions target, saying he looked forward to discussing China’s “plans for submitting an enhanced 2030 emissions reduction target.” This language is ambiguous but suggests that China could commit to reaching peak emissions before 2030.

Beyond the desire to avoid bowing to US pressure, Beijing’s reluctance to announce more aggressive climate targets also reflects practical considerations. The 2030 and 2060 targets were announced less than a year ago and are already aggressive, with many analysts doubting that they are achievable absent dramatic action that goes well beyond what Beijing has announced so far. As previously noted, the Communist Party leadership appears to have embraced emissions reductions as a high-level political priority. Nevertheless, the current targets may already represent the outer limits of what the leadership can accept, given the impact on economic growth from emissions reduction efforts.

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