Kerry Heads to China for Long-awaited Climate Talk: What You Need to Know

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For almost a year, talks between the world’s two biggest polluters, China and the United States, have been stalled as the effects of global warming have worsened in the form of deadly heatwaves, droughts, floods and wildfires.

John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate change, is expected to arrive in Beijing on Sunday to resume talks with the Chinese government. He is expected to meet his Chinese minister, Xie Zhenhua, and other officials for three days of talks, with the aim of finding ways to work together on climate change despite the differences between the two countries on trade, human rights and other issues. Here’s what you need to know:

The United States and China are the world’s largest economies, the world’s largest investors in renewable energy and, in particular, the world’s largest consumers of fossil fuels. Together they spew about 40 percent of global warming into the atmosphere.

Experts agree that the speed with which the two countries reduce emissions and help other countries to adopt wind, solar and other forms of clean energy will determine whether the country can avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“There is no solution to climate change without China,” said David Sandalow, a former Clinton and Obama veteran now at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “The world’s two biggest exporters should talk to each other about the current threat.”

The leaders of the two administrations are speaking again after a year of heightened tensions.

Beijing suspended the high-level trade deal with the United States in August after Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who was the speaker of the House at the time, visited Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory. Mr. Kerry said that he hoped that the climate talks would not be international, but Chinese officials. he rejected that idea.

President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China agreed at a meeting in Bali in November to resume talks between their officials. But those plans fell apart earlier this year after a Chinese balloon was seen floating over the United States, angering Washington, prompting Beijing to delay the resumption of talks.

In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has sent several cabinet secretaries to Beijing in an effort to strengthen ties. Mr. Kerry’s visit follows a visit to China by Antony J. Blinken, secretary of state, and Janet L. Yellen, secretary of the Treasury. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo is scheduled to go to China after Mr. Kerry.

“I think there is a solution, to establish a working relationship with China that benefits them and us,” Biden said in interview with CNN in the near future.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, the landmark agreement in which nearly all countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous increases in global temperatures, exists largely because the United States and China made a deal.

The two spent decades arguing over who should cut air pollution first, and agreed to do things together, albeit in different ways. The agreement allowed the United States and China to convince other leaders that each country, regardless of its wealth or responsibility for causing climate change, has a responsibility to help solve the problem.

The United States wants to reduce its emissions by about 50 percent in the next decade and stop adding anything to the atmosphere by 2050. China says its emissions will increase until 2030 before starting to decrease and then stop by 2060.

Both countries are on track to meet their looming goals, experts say. But there are major obstacles.

The United States is investing $370 billion in clean energy and implementing regulations to curb pipe and tobacco pollution. But at the same time, it has been approving new oil and gas projects and has failed to deliver on its promises to help poor countries pay for their transition away from fossil fuels.

China is the world leader in electric vehicles and produces more energy from the sun than all other countries combined. But its use of coal, the dirtiest fuel, continues to rise alarmingly. Construction of coal-fired power plants in China rose recently after leaders suspended their commitment to cut coal and re-emphasized “energy security.”

Mr. Kerry said he hopes to do at least three things with China: curb methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that comes from oil and gas wells; cutting down trees; and ending the use of coal in China.

The United States has also been pushing China to set new, stronger climate goals, including an earlier date for maximum emissions.

In an interview, Kerry said he hopes to come up with “new things that will get the ball rolling” on air travel.

By many accounts, the Chinese government wants to focus on what it has already achieved and the policies it has put in place to get there. It does not want to push for new goals, especially when it fears that Mr. Biden’s successor may abandon his promises.

China is known for setting achievable goals and hitting them. It has already exceeded its goal of ensuring that the share of energy that comes from non-oil sources increases by 25 percent by 2030.

“They feel they have done a great job,” said Bernice Lee, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank, and an expert on China’s climate policy. “Obviously they want to talk about more renewables as part of a growing energy mix, and they see that as a win.”

But he added, “The question is whether it’s safe to talk about getting rid of coal too quickly.”

Despite its rich economy and emissions, China is trying to position itself as a protector of the developing world. For nearly 20 years, China has been the world’s biggest emitter, but its per capita emissions are lower than those of the world’s richest countries, and Beijing has argued that these countries should shoulder a greater burden in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to international investment. Mr. Xie and other officials should promote this message. Chinese officials may also pressure Mr. Kerry on tariffs imposed by Washington on Chinese-made solar power.

“The United States has a lot of influence in other areas outside of the climate, especially trade, so China hopes that good climate solutions will help to resolve conflicts on other issues,” said Qi Qin, a China energy expert at the Center for Research. on Energy and Clean Air, an organization headquartered in Finland.

Chinese observers are keeping low hopes for the summit, in part because the Chinese government, like most governments, does not like to appear under pressure to act. Observers don’t expect big new announcements about emissions or cutting coal.

“I don’t think they want to look like John Kerry came to tell them what to do,” said Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

One result is that both countries have agreed to regular US-China climate change summits. Experts say this could be very positive and could pave the way for the United Nations World Summit scheduled for November in Dubai.

Ms. Qin, an energy analyst, said that recent visits to Beijing by Mr. Blinken, the secretary of state, and Ms. Yellen, the secretary of the Treasury, did not bring much consensus. Instead, Ms. Qin said, the meetings “could be the basis for a summit of top leaders later this year, where we can expect some positive developments.”

Chris Buckley contributed reports.

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