U.S. China Climate Talks Remain Tense as COP26 Approaches

Image: U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor

During White House Climate Envoy John Kerry’s trip to Tianjin on Monday, climate talks with China became tense, sparking fear that full cooperation may not be in the cards heading into the COP26 conference this fall in Glasgow. Kerry hoped to convince the Chinese government that climate change isn’t “day-to-day politics,” but officials said that climate cooperation “cannot possibly be divorced” from other political tensions.


Why This Matters: The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest emitters, with nearly 30% of global emissions coming from China in 2019. If either nation fails to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, the world fails with them. Together, the two countries could develop emissions-cutting technology and spur global climate ambition. Still, China and the U.S. have reached an impasse surrounding the growth of China’s coal usage. “Needless to say, adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200…if it went to fruition, would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees,” said Kerry. “The stakes are very high.”


Tensions Rise

Kerry met with his counterpart in the Chinese government, Xie Zhenhua, and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Kerry told reporters that the talks centered entirely on climate change but described the Chinese parties’ comments as “pointed.” “My response to them was, ‘Hey look, climate is not ideological. It’s not partisan, it’s not a geostrategic weapon or tool, and it’s certainly not day-to-day politics. It’s a global, not bilateral, challenge,’” said Kerry.

However Chinese officials said that as long as the nations’ relationship suffered elsewhere, it would be difficult to cooperate on climate action. “The United States should stop regarding China as a threat and adversary,” said Wang. “The U.S. side hopes that climate cooperation can be an ‘oasis’ in China-U.S. relations, but if that ‘oasis’ is surrounded by desert, it will also become desertified sooner or later.”

Still, lines of communication remain open, and both Kerry and Xie have affirmed that climate change, which contributed to massive flooding in both diplomats’ nations this summer, is not a problem that can be solved without partnership. “Kerry and Xie have been able to carve out a channel for ongoing communication on climate change, which is extremely valuable right now,” Joanna I. Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University, told the New York Times. “Yet it is increasingly difficult to fully insulate climate change from the broader tensions.” The two have met 18 times since January 2021 and plan to meet once more before the November COP26 conference in Glasgow.

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