The U.S. and China Are Restarting Climate Talks: Here’s Where Things Stand

For nearly a year, talks between the planet’s two biggest polluters, China and the United States, have been suspended as the impacts of global warming have only grown more intense in the form of deadly heat, drought, floods and wildfires.

John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change, is set to arrive in Beijing on Sunday to restart climate negotiations with the Chinese government. He is slated to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and other officials for three days of talks, with the goal of finding ways to work together on climate change despite simmering tensions between the two countries on trade, human rights and other issues. Here’s what you should know:

Why does this meeting matter?

The United States and China are the world’s biggest economies, the world’s biggest investors in renewable energy and, most critically, the world’s biggest 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 slash 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 on Global Energy Policy. “The world’s two largest emitters should be talking to each other about this existential threat.”

Why are the U.S. and China negotiating on climate now?

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 had voiced hopes that climate negotiations could be insulated from geopolitical rancor, but Chinese officials rejected that idea.

President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China had agreed in 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 United States, igniting anger in Washington, which in turn led Beijing to slow the resumption of talks.

President Biden with President Xi Jinping of China in Bali in November, when they agreed to renew talks between their senior officials.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has sent several cabinet secretaries to Beijing in an effort 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 slated 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 a CNN interview recently.

What have the U.S. and China already done to address climate change?

The Paris Agreement of 2015, a landmark deal in which nearly every nation agreed to rein in emissions and stave off dangerous global temperature rise, exists in large part because the United States and China struck a deal.

The two set aside decades of sparring over who should cut carbon pollution first, and agreed to act together, albeit at different paces. 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 almost 50 percent this decade and to 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 near-term goals, analysts said. But there are still major hurdles.

The United States is investing $370 billion in clean energy and imposing regulations to cut pollution from tailpipes and smokestacks. But at the same time, it has been approving new oil and gas projects and has failed to meet 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 power plants in China accelerated recently after leaders diluted their commitment to cut coal and re-emphasized “energy security.”

Meeting with Xie Zhenhua, Mr. Kerry’s Chinese counterpart, at the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, last year.Credit…Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

What does the U.S. want from the meeting?

Mr. Kerry has said he hopes to work on at least three issues with China: curbing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells; deforestation; and phasing out China’s coal consumption.

The United States has also been prodding China to set new, stronger climate targets, including an earlier date by which emissions will peak.

In an interview, Mr. Kerry said he hopes to come away with some “specific new actions that will get the ball moving” on driving down emissions.

What does China want?

By most accounts, the Chinese government wants to focus on the targets it has already set and the policies it has in place to get there. It is not keen to be pushed on new goals, especially when it fears that a potential successor to Mr. Biden could back out of his commitments.

China is known for setting achievable targets and hitting them. It has already surpassed its goal of ensuring the share of energy derived from non-fossil fuel sources rises 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 point to the high amount of renewables as part of the energy mix that is increasing, and they look at this as an achievement.”

But she added, “The question is whether it is in a position to talk about phasing coal out faster.”

Despite its enormous economy and emissions, China tries to position itself as a defender of the developing world. For nearly two decades, China has been the biggest national emitter, but its average pollution per person is lower than in most wealthy countries, and Beijing has long maintained that those nations should shoulder a greater burden in cutting greenhouse gases and financing 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 U.S. has quite a bit of leverage in other areas outside of climate, especially trade, so China is likely hoping that positive steps on climate help alleviate tensions on other fronts,” said Qi Qin, a China energy analyst for the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an organization with headquarters in Finland.

What is the likely outcome?

China-watchers are keeping expectations low for this meeting, in part because the Chinese government, like most governments, doesn’t like to appear as if it has been pressured to act. Observers don’t expect big new pronouncements on emissions targets or cutting coal.

“I don’t think they’re going to want to seem like John Kerry came there and told them what to do,” said Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

One possible outcome is that both countries agree to regular U.S.-China meetings on climate change. Experts say that would be a strong outcome and could smooth the way for the United Nations climate summit slated 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 bring about major agreements. Instead, Ms. Qin said, these meetings “might serve as groundwork for a top leaders’ summit later this year, which is where we might expect something more tangible.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

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