U.S.-China Climate Change Talks Founder Over Xinjiang Sanctions

Chinese officials have warned John Kerry that deteriorating U.S.-China ties will impact bilateral cooperation on climate change. Kerry, who was in Tianjin for preliminary talks with his Chinese counterparts in preparation for the November COP 26 talks in Glasgow, has repeatedly iterated his hope that environmental policy could be divorced from other contentious issues in bilateral relations. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo and Brady Dennis reported on top Chinese officials insistence that this is not the case:

Wang called on the United States to stop treating China as “a threat and an adversary,” adding that climate change “cannot be separated” from the broader geopolitical environment and linking climate with other diplomatic obstacles in the increasingly tense relationship.

“The U.S. side hopes climate change cooperation can be an oasis in China-U.S. relations,” Wang said, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry. “But if the oasis is surrounded by desert, sooner or later the oasis will also become desert.”

[…] “It’s a very different geopolitical context between China and the U.S.” compared to the lead-up to the Paris agreement, said Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “What has changed, I think, is that China is in a more self-confident posture relative to the rest of the world and to the U.S. on a variety of things — more assertive, more willing to push its own interests.” [Source]

Last year, Xi Jinping announced ambitious climate goals in front of the United Nations General Assembly. Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, argued that the unexpected pledge meant: “climate leadership has crossed the geopolitical Rubicon in Beijing’s eyes. In other words, it has become a central priority for China irrespective of the steps taken by other countries, including the United States.” In the early days of the Biden administration, environmental policy was a rare point of cooperation. In April, Xi Jinping attended a virtual White House climate summit. Yet in June, however, the U.S. banned the import of solar products from Xinjiang after a landmark report uncovered compelling evidence of human rights abuses in the region’s polysilicon industry, which supplies 50 percent of global demand. After Kerry’s trip, vice-commerce minister Wang Shouwen said that trade barriers on green and low-carbon technologies are impediments to cooperation. At The South China Morning Post, Catherine Wong reported that the Xinjiang sanctions were a main sticking point in negotiations:

“China already has its own plans and road map for achieving its climate goals,” [according to the source, who requested anonymity], adding China would not accept Washington telling it what to do and when.

[…] “On the one hand, we’re saying to them, ‘You have to do more to help deal with the climate.’ And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned, which makes it harder for them to sell them,” [Kerry said after the Thursday meeting.]

[…] “There is room for discussion on climate cooperation in specific technical areas,” [according to Lu Xiang, a US affairs expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.] “For example, the US restrictions on solar products from Xinjiang, which is not very beneficial for climate cooperation. Resolving climate issues will require technology, so the US cannot say they want to cooperate with China on climate but use human rights issues to restrict our photovoltaic products.” [Source]

In post-trip interviews, Kerry continued to insist that climate is not a “geostrategic weapon.” From Chris Buckley and Lisa Friedman at The New York Times:

“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,’” [Kerry] said on a call with reporters.

And, Mr. Kerry said, when it comes to tackling climate change, “We think China can do more.”

[…] Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above the preindustrial average — the point at which scientists say the effects of climate change will be catastrophic and irreversible — requires a dramatic turnaround of China’s coal trajectory, Mr. Kerry said he told Chinese leaders. [Source]

Approvals for new coal-fired power plants decreased by 77.8 per cent after Xi’s 2020 emissions pledge—although provincial governments are still offering financial support to 79 planned projects, according to Greenpeace’s findings. As Greenpeace analyst Li Shuo told Bloomberg, “Climate politics are still in flux [….] The carbon neutrality announcement mobilized the Chinese bureaucratic system to seek solutions. But this process is certainly not resistance free.” While coal remains an important source of cheap energy for many across China, a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailed the devastating coasts climate change will likely inflict on the nation. At Science, Lili Pike broke down why the IPCC report may push China to adopt even more ambitious efforts to limit coal:

Details of how climate change will impact humanity will come in the next IPCC volumes in 2022, but the current report offers a synthesis of what China can expect. The language is dry but presents a grim future: If temperatures climb 2°C above preindustrial levels, heavy precipitation will become more intense and frequent; drought will become more severe and regular in large parts of China; tropical cyclones will increase in intensity; and, by the end of the century, sea levels will rise 0.3 to 0.5 meters and temperatures could surpass 41°C on 30 days of the year.

The scientific literature underpinning the IPCC assessment paints a more vivid picture of how a 2°C rise would impact China. For instance, in one cited study from 2018, Chinese scientists found that summer floods at the scale that killed more than 3000 people in 2010 and caused more than $50 billion in economic losses would be three times more likely to occur.

[…] “I think [China is] going to start to get even more pressure to move that 2060 carbon neutrality goal to 2050 because that is really what is in line with the IPCC science,” says Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who focuses on Chinese climate policy. [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Sha Hua reported that Chinese skepticism about the United States’ ability to follow through on climate commitments was another factor in the talks’ failure:

But Vice Premier Han Zheng balked at Mr. Kerry’s call for China to announce more ambitious targets. During a video call between Messrs. Kerry and Han on Thursday, Mr. Han emphasized the importance of delivering on actions instead.

“On the issue of climate change, China has always been true to its words and resolute in deeds,” Mr. Han told Mr. Kerry, according to China’s description of the conversation.

[…] China has its own doubts about the U.S.’s ability to deliver on its promises. Researchers at a think tank affiliated with China’s Environment Ministry said China should seek to collaborate with the U.S., but also prepare for the U.S. to withdraw again from the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to a July presentation reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. [Source]

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