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A chapter of diplomacy closes as US and Chinese climate envoys say farewell

China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua stood beaming beside his US counterpart John Kerry as the UN COP28 summit closed. He had brought his eight-year-old grandson from Beijing to Dubai to wish his friend a happy 80th birthday, he said, as the two men marked the end of an unusual chapter in diplomacy.

Xie, 74, retired from his position at the end of last year as he recovered from a stroke, while Kerry told his staff last weekend that he would step aside as US climate envoy to support Joe Biden in the US presidential campaign, though he would continue to “speak out” on climate change.

The two warhorses spoke again last week, he said, at a joint working group on agreement they collaborated on to crack down on methane from coal, oil and gas leaks.

But the departure of both Xie and Kerry from their posts marks the start of a new period in US-China climate negotiations, and ends a frequently tumultuous three years when, despite their warm relationship, they were prevented from meeting by soured relations between the world’s biggest powers.

Political analysts have credited the friendship for the progress made by Beijing and Washington over their respective climate change policies, even as tension mounted over Chinese military activity around Taiwan and the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon over the US.

“If Kerry and Xie weren’t in office, given all the recent geopolitical kerfuffles, there’s no way we’d be even close to where we’re at,” said Jake Schmidt, a senior director of international climate at think-tank NRDC.

“And we’re at square one — it’s not like they’ve come up with some Kumbaya agreement. They’ve just set the foundation.”

In the days ahead of the COP28 summit, the US and China reached an agreement, nicknamed the Sunnylands statement for the location of the Californian meeting, pledging to “accelerate the substitution” of fossil fuels with green energy.

A promise to triple the global level of renewables by 2030 and include more greenhouse gases such as methane in climate change calculations was taken at as a good sign by the climate experts.

But it left much work to be done if the world’s two largest polluters were to power the world to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C and ideally 1.5°C, they pointed out.

“If you read Sunnylands, it’s great given the starting point or baseline,” said Ilaria Mazzocco, a US-China climate expert at Washington think-tank CSIS. “But it’s about co-ordination rather than actual co-operation.” 

Tensions between the US and China have frequently stalled climate progress during Kerry’s recent time in office, despite his insistence that US-China engagement on climate change should be insulated from the broader geopolitical relationship. 

The diplomats were prevented from meeting for about a year when Beijing cut off climate talks in retaliation for former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August of 2022. Kerry was the third US official to visit China last summer in an effort to resume the talks as Washington sought to stabilise the deteriorating broader relationship.

At each of the UN climate summits over the past three years, including in Egypt where Kerry contracted Covid, they spent long hours together as negotiations ran into the early hours. The last COP finally brought an agreement by almost 200 countries for a “transition away from fossil fuels”.

Kerry told the Financial Times at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week that he and Xie were “doing all we can to stay in very close touch; and he and I will continue to work in respective institutions [to forge green collaboration]”.

China has named career diplomat Liu Zhenmin, who has attended 10 UN climate summits since 1996, as Xie’s successor. Kerry’s replacement has not yet been announced by the White House. US media have cited Biden’s clean energy adviser John Podesta as a potential immediate replacement.

The working group set up by the two countries in 2021 to discuss climate issues, including methane emissions, combating deforestation and the energy transition more broadly, will continue without them. 

Joseph Webster, of the Atlantic Council, said Beijing had an economic incentive to back clean energy, citing analysis from Wood Mackenzie, the energy consultancy, valuing Chinese solar exports at $52bn in 2022.

“China is looking at clean energy exports as an economic lever going forward, and they’re being increasingly assertive about it,” said Webster. “US-China climate talks is a useful political tool in Beijing — they want to defuse tensions with the west in order to bolster economic growth.”

This year’s UN COP29 is scheduled to take place in Baku, Azerbaijan, just days after the 2024 US presidential election, which could result in Donald Trump returning to the White House. In his first term, Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement and turned his back on international climate diplomacy efforts.

Kerry told his Davos audience this week that he was not retiring entirely from the arena, but instead shifting his efforts to “where I think they might be best used in the United States”.

The former secretary of state said he would “very happily” campaign for Biden in the presidential election, “because the stakes could not be higher, for our country, for the world”. 

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