Illustration by Mia Clement

Beijing rebuffs the USA proposal to accelerate climate efforts, including a public commitment to stop the financing of coal-fired power plants. China ‘tells US envoy John Kerry it will follow its climate road map’.

China and the United States have failed to reach an agreement on climate action, with Beijing refusing calls to make more public commitments on climate change before the United Nations’ climate summit in Glasgow in November, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The talks also got entangled in the debate on human rights after Washington recently targeted Beijing’s solar power industry over allegations of forced labour of minority Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.

The collapse of talks comes at a critical time when the world’s two largest economies are grappling with the deadly consequences of climate change, including the recent deadly flooding in New York and the torrential rain that hit several Chinese cities in July and August and killed hundreds of people. Alongside a new study showing how increases in extreme winter weather in parts of the US are linked to accelerated warming of the Arctic.

During talks with Chinese leaders in Tianjin, US climate envoy John Kerry presented a list of proposals for Beijing to accelerate its climate efforts. They included a public commitment to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) limit of global warming targeted in the 2015 Paris Agreement, a definite time frame for carbon emissions to peak before 2030, and a moratorium on financing overseas coal-fired projects. But the two sides failed to reach an agreement, according to the source, who requested anonymity.

“China already has its plans and road map for achieving its climate goals,” said the person, adding China would not accept Washington telling it what to do and when.

On 3rd September, Greenpeace East Asia published its Annual 2020 report warning that because of climate change, the Arctic may experience a sea-ice-free summer as soon as 2035 – much earlier than 2050 as earlier predicted.

Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, told SCMP that the lack of progress during Kerry’s trip “does not bode well” for the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November.

“No outcome is the outcome. The [US-China] relationship is taking its toll on the planet.”

Kerry left the Chinese city of Tianjin on Friday without getting a firm commitment from Beijing. However, China’s environment ministry said to Carbon Brief that the dialogue was “candid, in-depth and pragmatic” while promising that discussions will continue.

Optimism

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported on Kerry’s confidence regarding Beijing and his insistence that it was possible to secure his climate goals with China. He argued that climate change “is a freestanding international crisis, which all of us need to deal with, no matter what”. Kerry also held a January press conference to insist climate change negotiations were of utmost importance and need not be contingent on concessions in other areas. 

When Kerry visited Shanghai earlier this year, he vowed that his relations with Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy, were his sole concern. The two of them agreed on a joint statement on the “climate crisis”, a phrase the Chinese government had not used before.

Disagreement

In the meetings on the Thursday, China called on Washington to change its harsh policies towards Beijing, saying that climate change cooperation would not be smooth when China-US relations were deteriorating.

Kerry told the New York Times after the Thursday meetings that climate efforts were “not a geostrategic weapon or tool” and called on China to do more.

AP news reported that Kerry said it would be up to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to decide on the sanctions, but added: “I will certainly pass on to them … the full nature of the message that I received from Chinese leaders. On the one hand, we’re saying to them, ‘You have to do more to help deal with the climate.’ And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned, making it harder for them to sell them.”

On the Friday, China’s environment ministry said the two countries would continue talks and that their discussions were “candid, in-depth and pragmatic” – language that usually indicates differences.

The ministry said each side had explained its climate policies, with China aiming for its carbon emissions to peak before 2030 and be carbon neutral before 2060, working to upgrade industry and reduce coal use. The US said it would seek further reduction of greenhouse gases by 52 per cent from the 2005 level by 2030, zero greenhouse gases by 2050 and net-zero carbon emissions from the US power sector by 2035. Asked about the outcome of the talks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was already making many pledges on climate change and that the US should view China and Sino-US relations in an “objective way” to push forward climate change cooperation.

Tension

Discussions on the Wednesday via video link between Kerry and Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, resulted in the minister warning that cooperation on climate would not be sustainable without better relations. A “major strategic miscalculation” by Washington had resulted in “the sudden deterioration of bilateral relations in recent years”, Wang was quoted as saying by the Chinese state media. “The ball now is in the US court”, he added.

Relations between the two biggest polluters have remained extremely strained during Biden’s presidency over issues ranging from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, the South China Sea to technology and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. China stated relations were in a dangerous “ deadlock “ at talks in late July between Xie Feng, China’s vice-foreign minister, and Wendy Sherman, US deputy secretary of state.

Future relations

The future relationship between China and the United States is one of the mega-changes and mega-challenges of our age. China’s rise is the geopolitical equivalent of our melting polar ice caps: gradual change on a massive scale that can suddenly lead to a sudden and dramatic turn of events. 

Mia Clement

Mia Clement is a first year undergrad studying Geography at Christ Church college. They are an ardent climate activist promoting intersectional environmental protection and information across both OCS...