US Climate Envoy John Kerry spent this week in China on a mission to persuade the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases to do more to keep climate change in check.
China is the world’s largest emitter, producing an estimated 27% of global greenhouse gases, followed by the United States. China obtains roughly 60% of its power from coal and is opening more coal-fired power plants, while also committing to reducing its use of the fossil fuel.
Related: China's moderate climate goals allow emissions to continue to rise
China positioned itself as a leader on promoting renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions after former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris climate accord. China is a world leader in producing solar panels and wind turbines for renewable energy.
However, its climate policies have come under increasing scrutiny following Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris agreement and set a goal of cutting up to 52% of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — double the previous target — vaulting the US into the top tier of countries on climate ambition.
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What Kerry got this week in China was renewed demands for Washington to change its stance toward China on a host of other issues from human rights to Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims.
The back and forth underscores a divide between the world’s two largest emitters that is complicating chances for a breakthrough agreement on carbon reduction goals at COP26, a United Nations conference to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
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Both sides agree that climate is an area of joint interest, but while the US says they should cooperate despite their differences, China says the US cannot expect cooperation while also attacking it on other issues.
Kerry told reporters in a conference call at the end of his visit that his mandate is limited to climate, but that he would convey the Chinese concerns to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
For insight into Kerry's brand of climate diplomacy and the outcome of the talks, The World's host Carol Hills spoke with David Wade, who served as Kerry's chief of staff when the diplomat was secretary of state, and now runs the Kerry initiative at Yale University, focused on global challenges.
Carol Hills: David, what were the main goals that Kerry had going into these meetings?
David Wade: As we head toward 50 days away COP26 in Glasgow, his goal was to really keep the sense of urgency alive with China, trying to urge the Chinese to see the opportunity of being more ambitious about things like reducing coal, things like changing the way that they are financing coal around the world, even as they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions at home. Just as a matter of math, not ideology, the world cannot get where the world needs to go on climate change if China does not increase its its ambition.
You mentioned John Kerry's goal to leave politics out of climate talks, but that's kind of hard. I mean, for example, China has gotten a lot of heat for manufacturing solar products using forced Uighur labor in Xinjiang. How do you keep out politics?
I think it is helpful that Kerry has seen in his own history that if two sides want to get to an outcome, they are pretty good at finding ways to cabin off other difficult issues and to focus on the matter at hand. You know, if two sides want to achieve one outcome, they can successfully put aside those other difficult issues in the relationship. But I also think he feels climate change should not be seen as a bilateral issue. Yes, the United States and China are the world's two biggest polluters. And yes, the rest of the world is going to take signals about what commitments they make from the commitments of the world's two biggest polluters make. That said, this is an issue for everybody. This is an issue for the world.
After Envoy Kerry's talks this week with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, the spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, gave a press conference. He says the US should shoulder its legal responsibilities and should begin to cooperate meaningfully with developing countries. What's the response to accusations that the US is not in a position to be telling other countries what to do when it's the world's second-largest greenhouse gas emitter and historically the biggest?
First of all, Envoy Kerry, going back to his years as a United States senator attending the first global climate conferences, has always been someone pushing and urging the United States to do our part. And the United States is successfully reducing its own emissions, unlike China, which is obviously rising. But I think the short answer is we're not lecturing the rest of the world. What the United States is trying to do is to paint a picture of a clean energy revolution that everyone is in this together and that the United States is willing to lead and to do its part, whether it's on technology transfer, whether it is on helping developing countries make the energy changes that are going to be in all the world's interests.
You spoke to John Kerry while he was on his way home from China. How did he characterize the trip?
That conversations are constructive. He always says that diplomacy, you know, you plant seeds, you tend to the garden, but the moment has to ripen. And we will see whether if China decides that the opportunity is ripe to do what the world would like to see them do. But you continue tending to that garden.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.