US-China Tensions Hurt Climate Efforts 03/04 06:28
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The world's hopes for curbing climate change hinge on
action by two giant nations whose relations are deteriorating: China and the
United States. The two countries both say they are intent on retooling their
economies to burn less climate-wrecking coal, oil and gas. But tensions between
them threaten their ultimate success.
China and the United States are the world's No. 1 and No. 2 carbon
polluters, respectively, pumping out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that
are warming the planet's atmosphere.
The fast cuts in carbon needed to stave off the worst of climate change are
all but impossible unless these countries work together and basically trust
each other's pledges. During the Trump administration, the U.S. used China's
emissions as an excuse not to act, and in the past China pointed to U.S.
historical emissions as a reason to resist action.
New details of how quickly China plans to reduce carbon emissions will be
revealed Friday when Beijing releases its next Five Year Plan. And in April,
President Joe Biden is expected to announce the United States' own new targets
for emissions cuts.
The U.S. and China both have appointed veteran envoys as their global
climate negotiators, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua. But while the two senior
statesmen worked well together in laying groundwork for the 2015 Paris climate
accord, now they face new challenges.
U.S.-China climate diplomacy threatens to be overshadowed by what the United
States sees as Beijing's menacing policies toward Hong Kong, Taiwan and the
South China Sea, conflict over human rights and trade, and U.S. claims of
Meanwhile, Chinese officials are upset about restrictions imposed by the
Trump administration on trade, technology, Chinese media and students in the
U.S., and the State Department's declaration this year that atrocities against
China's Muslim minorities are a "genocide."
Kerry, a secretary of state under President Barack Obama who was brought
back to be Biden's climate envoy, recently told reporters: "Those issues" with
China "will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That's
not going to happen." But Kerry also called the climate "a standalone issue"
with China, drawing criticism from China and from some human-rights advocates
in the U.S.
Can climate talks between the two countries survive their other geopolitical
"That's, I think, the huge question," said John Podesta, who oversaw the
Obama administration's climate efforts and is close to the Biden administration.
"Can you create a lane where you get cooperation on climate" while more
contentious issues are dealt with separately? Podesta asked. "Or do they wind
Xie Zhenhua may help the odds. With his appointment as climate envoy last
month, Xie is reprising the role he held during pivotal U.N. climate
conferences that struck the world's first major commitments on reducing
emissions from fossil fuels.
Prior to his appointment, Xie led a research effort at Tsinghua University
in Beijing to map ways for China to stop contributing to global warming by
midcentury. His research underpinned President Xi Jinping's surprise pledge in
September that China planned to go carbon neutral by 2060 --- the first time
the country announced a net-zero target.
Joanna Lewis, an expert in China energy and environment at Georgetown
University, called Xie "a visionary, and very influential in setting China's
domestic policy targets," as well as a skilled negotiator.
Xie's appointment "was a huge overture toward the United States, and
particularly to John Kerry," said Angel Hsu, an expert on China and climate
change at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Biden has pledged the U.S. will switch to an emissions-free power sector
within 14 years, and have an entirely emissions-free economy by 2050. Kerry is
also pushing other nations to commit to carbon neutrality by then.
Behind the dry numbers, massive spending on infrastructure and technology is
needed to switch to a more energy-efficient economy, running on wind, solar and
other cleaner-burning fuels. And Biden has a narrow majority in Congress to
push his agenda, with Republicans, as well as some Democrats, opposing his
Climate scientists say countries need to move fast to avert catastrophic
In 2019, coal accounted for 58% of China's total primary energy consumption,
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Last year, as China's government directed economic relief money to
infrastructure projects during the pandemic, the country actually upped its
net power capacity from coal --- by about the equivalent of 15 Hoover Dams, or
30 gigawatts --- according to the Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for
Research on Energy and Clean Air. China also funds building of coal-fired power
plants abroad, partly to build influence.
Many experts question whether the construction of coal-fired plants is
driven by demand, or simply meant to stimulate the economy during a downturn.
Either way, the brand-new coal plants have consequences.
"Every new coal plant that China builds is basically locking in carbon
emissions for the next 50 years," said Georgetown's Lewis.
The most important questions now, said Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in
Chinese governance and air pollution at Villanova University, are: "How soon
can China's carbon emissions peak, and at what level?"
She is watching closely to see what targets are incorporated in the next
Five Year Plan, and into China's updated pledges for emission cuts under the
Paris climate accord.
The key, climate negotiators say, will be making it worth China's while ---
financially and in terms of its international standing --- to slow down its
building and funding of new coal plants and speed up spending on clean energy.
Biden has reached out to European allies as a first step, trying to build
consensus among China's trade partners about market and trade-based rewards and
disincentives as a way of prodding China to reduce reliance on coal.
"None of these countries are wanting to save the planet and be completely
selfless about this," Christiana Figueres, who helped broker the landmark
climate deal in 2015, told The Associated Press. "Only if it also serves their
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