DUBAI – There has been an unwritten rule during the past decade of climate diplomacy: good things can happen when the world’s two biggest economies are aligned. If the United States and China can again come together in the quest to slash greenhouse gas emissions, there is hope that progress can be made at COP28 in Dubai.
To lay the groundwork for the summit, which starts later in November, the two countries’ top climate negotiators met this week in Rancho Mirage, California.
Five days of talks, originally set to last just four, concluded on Wednesday without yielding an immediate public breakthrough.
The window for success is shrinking, and the bilateral relationship faces new challenges, even as US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare to meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in San Francisco in mid-November.
The upcoming US presidential election is set to stoke political rhetoric targeting Beijing, and Mr Biden will face scrutiny on the campaign trail for any moves seen as soft on China, narrowing the lane for dealmaking.
China’s sputtering economy and anxiety about energy security have also limited its room to manoeuvre on climate policy. An upcoming presidential poll in Taiwan is another wild card for volatile relations between Washington and Beijing.
“Historically, climate change was the one area where we were always able to find some common ground,” says Dr Joanna Lewis, an expert in international policy at Georgetown University.
“More recently, the broader tensions of the relationship have spilled over into the US and China’s ability to do substantive engagement, even on the climate issue.”
Their progress now depends greatly on two veteran negotiators: Mr John Kerry, the US climate envoy, and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, a former environment minister. Both men have had significant influence over their countries’ climate policies, and their camaraderie will be hard for any successors to duplicate.
Mr Xie was a major architect of Mr Xi’s 2060 net-zero pledge, though he has in recent years had to navigate calls within China’s bureaucracy for more restrained green measures as the nation grapples with economic and energy security concerns.
Mr Kerry is a former secretary of state who has unusual access to Mr Biden after decades serving together in the Senate.
Together, Mr Xie and Mr Kerry hammered out a joint statement in 2014 that set the stage for the landmark Paris Agreement a year later.
Their promise to collaborate in the final days of COP26 talks in Glasgow provided the momentum and even some of the language that helped produce the summit’s final pact.
The Dubai meeting may be one of the last times the two sit across from each other.
Mr Kerry is set to mark his 80th birthday at the United Nations summit. Mr Xie, who will have just turned 74, suffered a stroke earlier in 2023 that sidelined some face-to-face talks.
The Chinese government is preparing to appoint Mr Liu Zhenmin, a top diplomat, to replace Mr Xie after COP28, according to people familiar with the plan, who asked not be identified as the matter is private.
Mr Kerry and Mr Xie have had more than 50 meetings since early 2021, though they have worked as diplomats together far longer, having had conversations over seafood in Boston and duck in Beijing as well as during impromptu meetings in airports around the world.
Mr Kerry said in July the two have a “special relationship” marked by “great respect for each other” – and recent encounters have been marked with exchanges about each other’s health and well-being.
And even in 2022, when Beijing suspended formal climate negotiations with the US after then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a controversial visit to Taiwan, the two kept talking.
“Kerry and I have a friendship for 25 years” and continued private conversations, Mr Xie told reporters in 2022 at the climate summit in Egypt.
The diplomats’ close ties are credited as one reason Mr Xie was effectively pulled out of retirement in 2021, following Mr Kerry’s appointment in Washington.
China and the US have good reasons to find consensus.
The world is set to heat up beyond the 1.5 deg C goal set in Paris unless the two nations most responsible for today’s planet-warming pollution take aggressive action.
Protecting the environment is popular within China and one of the few ways it can earn goodwill from countries that feel threatened by its rising economic power.
For the US, China is a critical intermediary to the climate-vulnerable nations that are a potent negotiating bloc at the annual COP talks.
Despite those incentives, Mr Xie and Mr Kerry are navigating around “political landmines”, says Mr Li Shuo, incoming director of the China Climate Hub with the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“The bilateral relationship is limiting the political space on each side, and that makes both countries drive hard bargains.”
US and Chinese negotiators want a package deal to emerge from COP28, according to people familiar with their discussions, who asked not to be named because the talks are private.
When talks in Beijing this summer ended without a pronouncement, Mr Kerry stressed that he and Mr Xie did not want to rush out a weak declaration for appearance’s sake. Instead, he said, they were striving for something meaningful.
Mr Xie said in late September that he and Mr Kerry have been holding biweekly video conferences, and the two men huddled together for days of talks in California earlier this week.
Though the session did not yield an immediate public declaration, it helped build the foundation for possible future pronouncements.
It would be a major achievement if both countries committed to boosting the share of their total power production that comes from clean energy, the people say.
Another potential breakthrough would be some type of coordination to channel money to poorer nations, so they may transition more quickly to green energy or help identify projects for investment that these countries could afford, they say.
Mr Kerry has also encouraged China to publish a plan for slashing methane pollution.
The country promised to develop an action plan in 2021, but its release was delayed amid resistance internally from its agriculture and energy ministries, which are worried about the impact on coal mines and rice fields.
The blueprint unveiled on Tuesday lays out broad goals around better controlling methane releases, but does not cite specific reduction targets for that potent greenhouse gas.
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