John Kerry Says the US and China Need More Time to Break Ground on Climate

Washington and Beijing need more time to “break new ground” in their shared mission to combat global warming, US climate envoy John Kerry said after days of talks in Beijing ended without sweeping new commitments.

(Bloomberg) — Washington and Beijing need more time to “break new ground” in their shared mission to combat global warming, US climate envoy John Kerry said after days of talks in Beijing ended without sweeping new commitments. 

“We got a long way with it,” and “we just ran out of administrative time and capacity to chase it down,” Kerry said in an interview Wednesday night. “But we’re in the chase.”

The US and China committed to “work intensively in the weeks ahead,” with talks proceeding on an “accelerated” schedule ahead of a critical UN climate summit starting this November in Dubai, Kerry said. China agreed with the US that countries should strive to limit warming to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels — a critical tipping point — and “that we have to be reducing coal faster,” he added. 

Chinese officials haven’t yet offered public comment on the outcome of the negotiations.

Initial conversations in weeks ahead are set to focus on integrating renewable power to scale down the use of coal-fired electricity, Kerry said in the interview. Both countries also are set to discuss better addressing methane and other greenhouse gas emissions, going beyond carbon dioxide, as they lay a foundation for formal 2035 climate pledges under the Paris Agreement. 

The lengthy meetings between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua provided a key opportunity to reset bilateral relations nearly a year after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan scuttled plans for a retreat, a working group and other collaboration on stemming planet-warming pollution.

Kerry stressed that negotiators did not want to rush out a joint statement that wouldn’t spur significant action. The goal is to do something real and compelling, he said, and ensure “we’re not just putting words on paper.”

Still, the lack of a grand declaration is a setback for global climate negotiations, whose success so often depends on alignment between the US and China, the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters. Even as talks were ongoing in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the nation will not let outsiders dictate its carbon-cutting path — further underscoring the difficulty in finding consensus. 

Read More: Xi Says China to Decide Its Own Path to Reduce Carbon Emissions

Kerry is the third major US official to visit Beijing in recent weeks, as the Biden administration seeks to restore broader dialogue amid tensions on trade controls, human rights and other issues. Republicans blasted Kerry’s quest, saying he was returning to the US empty-handed. 

The trip “was a waste of time,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington state who heads the House energy committee. China’s goal isn’t reducing emissions, but ensuring the US is “dangerously dependent on them for our energy needs,” she said. 

Scientists have warned the world faces more dangerous extreme weather events with every fraction of a degree that the Earth’s temperature rises. Greenhouse gas reductions by China and the US are essential to preventing that from happening. China alone was responsible for about a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in 2021. The US also has spewed more of that planet-warming gas over decades as it burned coal, oil and natural gas to build its economy.

US-China collaboration on the issue has helped pave the way for global climate pacts, including the 2015 Paris Agreement and an accord inked in Glasgow two years ago. 

“It will be important the two countries can find a way to send a collective signal” before the COP28 summit in Dubai, said Thom Woodroofe, founding director of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s China Climate Hub. “The optics bode well for future rounds of discussion,” possibly including between President Joe Biden and Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in California in November, he added.

Amid turbulent US-China relations, even the plan to keep talking is important, stressed Joanna Lewis, an expert in China and international policy at Georgetown University. But, she added, the clock is ticking: “With only four months until COP28, there isn’t much time to get to something more concrete.”

During this week’s negotiations, China also backed findings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has warned the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C is almost out of reach, according to a senior State Department official said. That’s a notable shift following moves by China to downplay the IPCC’s work in recent UN negotiations, the official said.

Read More: This Year Is Already on Track to Be the Hottest Ever Recorded

But there were disputes over China’s plans to expand its fleet of coal-fired power plants, a major source of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even as it sets records installing wind and solar farms, China permitted the equivalent of two new coal plants a week last year as it seeks to shore up energy security, according to data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Though the facilities may never run at full capacity, the coal buildout offsets some of the benefits of China’s mammoth renewable installation. Kerry repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — pressed for a curtailment this week. 

He also appealed to the country’s self-interest in combating climate change, highlighting the extreme heat now menacing parts of the US, Europe and Asia as a sign of what’s to come. 

“We are trying to break new ground — and that’s hard,” Kerry said Wednesday night, as he prepared to leave China. “But if we don’t break new ground, it’s going to be even harder to be able to tame the monster that has been created in terms of the climate crisis.”

–With assistance from Dan Murtaugh, Luz Ding and Colum Murphy.

(Updates with comment from Republican lawmaker in tenth paragraph)

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