Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kerry Urges Global Cooperation, Including From China, on Climate Change

US climate envoy John Kerry (left) leaves the Ministry of Finance after a meeting with Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi on April 6, 2021.
US climate envoy John Kerry (left) leaves the Ministry of Finance after a meeting with Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi on April 6, 2021.

John Kerry, in Asia on his first trip as the special presidential envoy for climate, is urging cooperation between the U.S. and China, and everyone else, on climate change because "no one nation can solve this problem by itself — impossible. Each of us needs everybody else at the table to make this happen."

Speaking with CNBC after attending the Regional Dialogue for Climate Action in Abu Dhabi, hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kerry said, "This is not about China, this is not a counter to China. This is about China, the United States, India, Russia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Australia, a bunch of countries that are emitting a pretty sizable amount, the United States and China the most."

Kerry's remarks on Sunday came before a visit to India from April 5 to April 8 and to Bangladesh on April 9. "India is getting the job done on climate, pushing the curve," Kerry said in New Delhi on Tuesday, according to Reuters. "You are indisputably a world leader already in the deployment of renewable energy."

Both stops are aimed at emphasizing the Biden administration's pursuit of an international commitment to address climate change.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Kerry will not meet China's climate czar Xie Zhenhua on this outing, although the two know each other from previous interactions.

Xie is a central figure in Beijing's plan to eliminate carbon emissions by 2060 and its chief negotiator at the 200-country-strong Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Xie's relationship with his U.S. counterpart Todd Stern is believed to have helped push the Paris accord over the line in late 2015, according to Reuters. Xie was appointed China's new special climate envoy, the country's Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced in February, and his reappointment after a two-year break reflects China's commitment to strengthen communication with the Biden administration on climate change, according to Bloomberg.

China and the U.S., the world's two largest economies, together account for 43% of the global carbon dioxide emissions.

Rebuilding the relationship

Jennifer Turner, director of the Wilson Center China Environment Forum, told VOA Mandarin that there are a lot of moving parts as the U.S. and China reboot their relationship after the very tense and confrontational times over the past few years.

"Kerry and Xie already know each other well from frequent interactions during the Obama administration, so I can see why there was not an urgency for the climate leads on both sides to meet immediately," she told VOA Mandarin.

Jane Nakano, an expert on energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that climate change is one area where cooperation between the U.S. and China can lead to progress despite differences on trade, human rights, intellectual property and technology.

"Washington's stated approach to China is to be 'collaborative when it can be' as well as to not make unsavory concessions in those other areas in exchange for Chinese cooperation in the climate area," she told VOA Mandarin via email. "From the Chinese side, Beijing may be feeling there is not much to be gained by proactively initiating the direct one-on-one climate engagement, especially when climate is a top priority to the Biden administration and not to China."

"Beijing may rather wish to see what Washington is willing to offer to or ask of Beijing," she added.

Yet Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute, said any delay in talks between Washington and Beijing may be little more than timing.

"Their lack of a direct conversation may be due to logistical reasons" such as scheduling meetings between busy diplomats, Weitz told VOA. There is also the possibility of "a U.S. desire to meet first with U.S. allies and partners before dealing with China."

U.S. President Joe Biden has made tackling climate change a priority. He called it the "number one issue facing humanity" as the Democratic candidate in October, and on January 27, days after taking office, he signed an executive order "to supercharge our administration's ambitious plan to confront the existential threat of climate change."

Biden is planning a two-day virtual summit with world leaders on April 22 and 23. The White House website says: "The Leaders' Summit on Climate will underscore the urgency — and the economic benefits — of stronger climate action. It will be a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow."

Biden's recent $2 trillion infrastructure proposal includes an investment of $35 billion into clean technologies and $174 billion on overhauling the country's electrical vehicle market.

Meanwhile, China's investment in clean energy reached $83.4 billion in 2019.

"The magnitude of the challenge is the most difficult problem facing both; the financial costs and disruption to people's lives involved in changing Chinese and U.S. energy policies is enormous," said the Hudson Institute's Weitz.

Obstacles to climate partnership

But sharp differences on human rights and trade are creating obstacles for possible cooperation on climate issues between the two superpowers.

"China and the U.S. are entering into an era of increasingly open competition, criticism, and rivalry in a variety of spheres — economic, diplomatic, technological, and possibly military — which make any kind of cooperation harder to achieve," Carsten Vala, a political science professor at Loyola University Maryland, told VOA Mandarin.

"The toughest things are, no doubt, China's increasing assertiveness in international relations," he said. "That stance derives from the Chinese Communist Party leadership's belief that it handled the COVID-19 pandemic better and survived the global economic slowdown better than Western countries, along with projections that its economy is predicted to rival that of the United States in the next two decades."

This has made China's top leaders "less willing to compromise," he added.

Turner, of the Wilson Center, agreed. "The Chinese and U.S. administrations are navigating some tough disagreements on trade and human rights, etc., which does not leave much political space for climate collaboration/diplomacy," she said.

Yet she pointed out that Chinese-U.S. cooperation on climate and clean energy is not accomplished only by the national governments because "there is still subnational, research, and NGO climate collaboration happening between the two countries."