John Kerry, the United States’s special envoy on climate, has arrived in China to revive efforts to combat global warming amid weeks of record-setting heat in the northern hemisphere that scientists say is being exacerbated by climate change.
Kerry’s four-day trip, which began on Sunday, follows two other high-level US visits to China this year as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters work to stabilise a relationship strained by trade disputes, military tensions and accusations of spying.
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Starting on Monday, “China and the United States will have an in-depth exchange of views” on climate issues, state broadcaster CCTV said on Kerry’s arrival in Beijing.
The envoy’s bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua will focus on issues including reducing methane emissions, limiting coal use, curbing deforestation and helping poor countries address climate change.
Kerry and Xie, who have cultivated a warm relationship over more than 20 years of diplomacy, will also likely discuss China’s objections to US tariffs and other restrictions on imports of Chinese solar panel and battery components, observers say.
Kerry is the third top US official after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to visit China this year to try to reestablish a stable bilateral relationship.
Both countries say they should be able to collaborate on climate change regardless of other disagreements.
Li Shuo from Greenpeace in Beijing told the Reuters news agency that the scheduled talks showed climate change “is still the touchstone for the most important bilateral relationship of the world”.
The restart of US-China climate talks comes on the heels of the hottest week on record globally, according to the World Meteorological Organization. June was already the hottest ever logged, according to US and European agencies.
Kerry will aim to use his time in Beijing to engage with Chinese officials “with respect to increasing implementation and ambition and promoting a successful COP28”, the State Department said, referring to the United Nations climate talks in November.
Nearly 200 nations will gather in the United Arab Emirates for COP28 to thrash out ways to mitigate global warming and its effects.
Talks between the US and China have a history of boosting global climate negotiations, including setting the foundation for the Paris climate accord in 2015, when governments agreed to limit the industrial-era rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But broader tensions have chilled the relationship since, including former US President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods such as solar panels, the visit of former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last year and a US law blocking imports of goods from the Xinjiang region where Washington believes China uses forced labour.
After Pelosi’s August trip to Taiwan, a democratically-governed island China claims as part of its territory, Beijing said it would halt all dialogue with Washington on climate change. The two countries only resumed informal climate talks in November at the COP27 summit in Egypt.
The passage in Washington, DC of the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act, whose tax credits for domestic clean energy production seek to counter China’s dominance in the sector and revive US manufacturing, has also ramped up tensions.
And while China has added more renewable energy than the rest of the world combined, it has also made a strong foray back to coal – a major concern for Washington. In 2022, China issued its highest number of new permits for coal plants since 2015, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Global Energy Monitor (GEM).
Byford Tsang, a senior policy adviser at the climate-focused think tank E3G, said there were a number of factors that “constrain the hands of energy planners in Beijing at the moment”. These include major disruptions in the global gas market due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reduced hydropower capacity in China following severe droughts in recent years.
Last summer, millions of people in southwest China faced rolling power cuts after crushing heatwaves led to an electricity supply crunch that forced factories to halt work, heightening domestic concerns over energy security.
“I think it would be politically challenging for China to take a step forward on coal policy at this stage,” Tsang told AFP.
During his visit, Kerry is also expected to bring up international climate finance efforts, following calls by Yellen during her Beijing trip for China to participate in the UN-run funds to help poorer nations address climate change.
China, which considers itself a developing nation, has resisted.
“I wouldn’t look for breakthroughs in these meetings but my hope is that they restore normal alignment and diplomacy,” said David Sandalow, director of the US-China program at the Center on Global Energy Policy.