For nearly a year, negotiations between the planet’s two biggest polluters, China and the United States, have been stalled as the effects of global warming have only intensified in the form of deadly heat, drought, floods and forest fires.
John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change, is set to arrive in Beijing on Sunday to resume climate talks with the Chinese government. He is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and other officials for three days of talks, with the goal of finding ways to cooperate on climate change despite waning tensions between the two countries over trade, human rights and other issues. Here’s what you should know:
Why is this meeting important?
The United States and China are the world’s largest economies, the world’s largest investors in renewable energy and, most critically, the world’s largest fossil fuel polluters. Together they spew about 40 percent of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Analysts agree that the speed with which the two countries cut emissions and help other nations transition to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy will determine whether the planet can avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
“There is no solution to climate change without China,” said David Sandalow, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations now at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. “The world’s two biggest emitters should talk to each other about this existential threat.”
Why are the US and China now negotiating on climate?
Leaders of the two superpowers are finally talking again after a year of extremely heightened tensions.
Beijing froze high-level diplomatic engagement with the United States in August after Representative Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who was the speaker of the House at the time, traveled to Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory. Mr Kerry expressed hope that climate talks could be insulated from geopolitical rancor, but Chinese officials rejected that idea.
President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China agreed at a meeting in Bali in November to renew talks between their senior officials. But those plans were derailed earlier this year after a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted floating over the US, sparking anger in Washington, which in turn led Beijing to slow the resumption of talks.
In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has sent several cabinet secretaries to Beijing to stabilize the relationship. Mr. Kerry’s trip follows visits to China by Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, and Janet L. Yellen, the treasury secretary. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo is scheduled to visit China after Mr. Kerry.
“I think there is a way to resolve, to establish a working relationship with China that benefits them and us,” Mr. Biden said in CNN interview recently
What have the US and China already done to address climate change?
The 2015 Paris Agreement, a landmark deal in which nearly all nations agreed to curb emissions and prevent dangerous global temperature rises, exists largely because the United States and China made a deal.
The two put aside decades of fighting over who should cut carbon pollution first, and agreed to act together, albeit at different speeds. That pact allowed the United States and China to convince other leaders that every nation, no matter its level of wealth or responsibility for causing climate change, has a responsibility to help solve it.
The United States aims to cut emissions by nearly 50 percent this decade and stop adding any to the atmosphere by 2050. China has said its emissions will increase until 2030 before they begin to fall and then stop by 2060.
Both countries are roughly on track to meet their short-term goals, analysts said. But there are still significant obstacles.
The US is investing $370 billion in clean energy and imposing regulations to cut pollution from exhausts and smokestacks. But at the same time, it approved new oil and gas projects and failed to fulfill its promises to help poorer countries pay for their own transitions away from fossil fuels.
China leads the world in electric vehicles and generates more energy from solar than all other countries combined. But its consumption of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, continues to rise dangerously. Construction of coal-fired power plants in China accelerated recently after leaders watered down their commitment to cut coal and reemphasized “energy security.”
What does America want from the meeting?
Mr. Kerry said he hopes to work on at least three things with China: curb methane, a potent greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells; deforestation; and phasing out China’s coal consumption.
The US has also urged China to set new, stronger climate targets, including an earlier date by which emissions will peak.
In an interview, Mr. Kerry said he hoped to come up with some “specific new actions that will move the ball” to lower emissions.
What does China want?
By most accounts, the Chinese government wants to focus on the goals it has already set and the policies it has in place to achieve them. It does not want to be pushed to new goals, especially when it fears that a potential successor to Mr. Biden could back away from his commitments.
China is known for setting achievable goals and hitting them. It has already exceeded its goal of ensuring that the share of energy derived from non-fossil fuel sources rises by 25 percent by 2030.
“They feel they’ve done a lot of work,” said Bernice Lee, research director at Chatham House, a think tank in Britain, and an expert on China’s climate policies. “They obviously want to show the high amount of renewables as part of the energy mix that is increasing, and they see that as an achievement.”
But she added, “The question is whether it’s able to talk about phasing out coal faster.”
Despite its enormous economy and emissions, China is trying to position itself as a defender of the developing world. For nearly two decades, China has been the largest national emitter, but its average per capita pollution is lower than in most rich countries, and Beijing has long argued that those nations should bear a greater burden to cut greenhouse gases and finance of global action. Mr. Xie and other officials are likely to reinforce that message. Chinese officials may also press Mr. Kerry on tariffs that Washington has imposed on Chinese-made solar panels.
“The US has enough leverage in other areas outside of climate, especially trade, so China probably hopes that positive steps on climate will help ease tensions on other fronts,” said Qi Qin, a China energy analyst for the Center for Research. on Energy and Clean Air, an organization headquartered in Finland.
What is the likely outcome?
China watchers are keeping low expectations for this meeting, in part because the Chinese government, like most governments, does not like to appear as if it has been pressured into action. Observers are not expecting big new statements on emissions targets or cutting coal.
“I don’t think they want to look like John Kerry came in there and told them what to do,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
One possible outcome is that both countries agree to regular US-China climate change meetings. Experts say that would be a strong result and could smooth the way for the United Nations climate summit scheduled for November in Dubai.
Ms. Qin, the energy analyst, noted that recent visits to Beijing by Mr. Blinken, the Secretary of State, and Ms. Yellen, the Treasury Secretary, did not lead to major agreements. Instead, Ms. Qin said, these meetings “can serve as groundwork for a summit of top leaders later this year, where we could expect something more tangible.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting.