Experts: Is Climate Cooperation Possible in Tense U.S.-China Relations

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry holds his granddaughter in his arms as he signs the Paris Climate Change Accord at U.N. headquarters on April 22, 2016. (AP Photo)


U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry delivered a speech Tuesday (March 23) at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Climate Action, hosted by the European Union, Canada and the Chinese Communist Party.

In his speech, Kerry said it is more urgent than ever for the world to use the next decade to significantly reduce carbon emissions. We cannot just assume that climate change is a long-standing reality or a catastrophic crisis facing humanity, but must recognize that it is Time to start taking action.

Kerry and Xie Zhenhua’s Common Challenge

President Joe Biden‘s national security adviser, John Sullivan, said in a recent interview on MSNBC that U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will meet with his counterpart in Beijing, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua.

Before that, senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats met in Alaska for the first time since Biden took office, and after publicly denouncing each other’s policies, the two sides said they would cooperate on climate change issues.

Climate change experts told VOA that the biggest challenge for both Kerry and Xie will be to continue to focus on cooperation between the two countries on climate change and not let the more difficult issues in the U.S.-China relationship overshadow and obscure the fact that the two countries are on the same page.

Judith Shapiro is a professor at American University and co-author of China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet.

This fact is that the U.S. and China share a common interest and goal to reduce carbon emissions for the sake of our planet and the nations of the earth,” said Zhuli Xia. Given the rather divisive atmosphere of the first talks between the Biden and Xi administrations in Alaska, it adds to the difficulty of cooperation between the two countries.”

Beijing’s Imperatives and Challenges

Observers believe that both Washington and Beijing want to put the rivalry between the two countries on a more predictable track as relations between the U.S. and China have plunged into a near freefall to a 40-plus year low during the Trump administration.

The first meeting of senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Alaska last week was in large part the first retreat and water-testing exercise for the new Biden Administration with Beijing.

Kerry did not have a one-on-one conversation with his Beijing counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, during the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Climate Action on Tuesday; but the U.S. and China agreed at the end of the meeting to establish a “joint working group” to address climate change as soon as possible.

The first meeting between Kerry and Xie Zhenhua since the working group was established is expected to be a test of the Biden administration’s China strategy as relations between the two countries remain tense.

Analysts said that although Kerry’s speech at the closed-door ministerial meeting did not directly mention mainland China, it has made a clear call for the world to act to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

“He (Kerry) emphasized that countries around the world, especially major economies, should accelerate their pace to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. With a target of 2050, that’s 10 years ahead of mainland China’s proposed carbon neutrality goal,” Jennifer Turner, director of the environmental program at the Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Voice of America.

In response to the next imperatives and challenges facing Beijing’s climate change cooperation with Washington, American University professor Xia Zhuli said, “If China can go beyond using climate change cooperation as a bargaining chip in exchange for a ‘moderating’ U.S. position on a range of other issues, Beijing will be able to demonstrate true global leadership.”

Wilson Center scholar Lan Wu expressed confidence in this because Kerry has pledged to promote climate change cooperation as an “important and separate issue” and the two sides do not appear to be using sensitive issues such as trade and human rights to pressure each other.

Washington’s priorities and challenges

Speaking at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Climate Action, Kerry said, “We must heed the warnings of economists that it is far less costly to act now than to continue to wait.” He called on the international community to reach consensus on two steps.

First, as many countries as possible, especially the world’s major economies, need to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, preferably by 2050 or earlier; develop specific net zero emission strategies and specify how they will achieve this goal. Second, the world needs to begin taking the necessary actions to significantly reduce GHG emissions in this critical next decade.

Wu Lan, director of the Wilson Center’s environmental program, told the Voice of America that because Kerry and Xie had already worked successfully together on climate change, the two should be expected to hold productive talks and work together once a joint U.S.-China working group is established.

Back in 2014, it was Kerry’s successful cooperation with Xie Zhenhua that led to an agreement between Washington and Beijing to cooperate on climate change issues, paving the way for the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2015.

In Wu Lan’s view, the Biden administration would like to see Beijing take more concrete action in the short term to show that China is moving fast enough toward its carbon neutrality goal. She said, “The fact that China is still expanding its investment in coal-fired power plants at Home and abroad could become a point of increasing contention between the U.S. and China.”

For her part, American University professor Xia Zhuli said, “Washington would show wisdom and maturity if the United States would avoid accusing the Chinese Communist Party of allowing the use of coal or the construction of coal-fired power plants in the ‘Belt and Road’ project and try to understand the challenges China faces and lend a helping hand. “

Xia Zhuli believes that the high-level U.S.-China talks in Alaska show that the mutual name-calling and accusations that have marked the beginning of the Biden-Xi relationship are far more serious than they were under Obama and Xi.

“If Kerry and Xie Zhenhua can capitalize on the old friendships the two have built over the past years of climate negotiations, then the U.S. and China will be able to restart a cooperative relationship that is free of animosity. Climate change and global health are two issues that politics should not be allowed to get involved in,” Xia Zhuli said.

Republicans question Biden’s climate policy

While President Biden has maintained many of former President Trump’s hard-line policies toward China since taking office on Jan. 20; he has taken a very different approach to addressing climate change.

Trump has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the issue of climate change during his campaign and since taking office, calling it a “hoax” and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. On his first day in the White House, Biden signed an executive order reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Currently, Biden and Kerry are under pressure from some members of Congress and Republicans. Republicans are concerned that the Biden administration may acquiesce to Beijing’s behavior on human rights, trade and other issues in order to reach a cooperation agreement with Beijing on climate issues.

On the eve of Tuesday’s Fifth Ministerial Conference on Climate Action, Trump-era Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a criticism of Biden’s renewed cooperation with China on climate: “Kerry’s participation in a climate change conference chaired by China is like joining a human rights commission of which Iran is also a member. Ridiculous. The Biden administration has done both.”

However, in a media interview earlier this year, Kerry said unequivocally, “These issues will never be used to make a deal with Beijing in exchange for cooperation on climate change. The United States will not do that. The issue of climate change is an important and separate issue.”