How Serious is China About Confronting Climate Change?

By Matthew McMullan
Jul 18 2023 |
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John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, is in Beijing right now for talks.

Former U.S. Secretary of State and current special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry is in Beijing, China right now, trying to “establish some stability” in negotiations to lower carbon dioxide emissions that are the leading contributor to climate change.

This is a modest goal but an urgent one, considering China and the United States are the world’s largest emitters of CO2 and cooperation will be necessary to get any meaningful reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions that are raising temperatures across the planet.

Kerry ultimately wants progress on this issue, and he wants to keep the climate talks separated from political questions in order to get it. A few months ago he basically defended China’s step back from climate negotiations, saying China feels “all we’re doing in bashing them and bashing them.” He caught a lot of heat (no pun intended) for that, but he’s still making the same argument.

“This is not a political issue,” Kerry told his Chinese counterpart on Monday, according to The New York Times. “This is not a bilateral issue or an ideological issue. This is real life unfolding before our eyes as a consequence of the choices we make or don’t make.”

Maybe this is what Kerry has determined is necessary to get China to even talk about climate with the United States. But as much as he would rather climate not be a political, bilateral or an ideological issue, it is.

Because, as the Times also points out, China’s own leadership is tying them together.

It doesn’t like U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods and U.S. export controls on semiconductor technology. It doesn’t like being admonished for running the supply chain for its world-leading solar panel industry through a province where it forces an ethnic minority into forced labor. It doesn’t like being told to drop its “developing country” designation in international forums, which it uses to justify its heavy reliance on coal as an energy source. And, just to put a point on it, these are the first U.S.-China climate talks in months because China suspended them after former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dared to visit Taiwan.

So, yeah, it would be ideal if these climate talks were devoid of political dingleberries, but they simply aren’t, and we shouldn’t cave to China’s complaints here now that it’s finally talking about climate again. For all its investments in clean energy China in 2022 permitted the construction of two new coal-fueled power plants per week, and has six times as many coal plants under construction than the rest of the world combined. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are high, but they’re declining. China meanwhile emits twice as much, and the total is increasing.

China in the last 48 hours recorded the world’s hottest temperature on record – 126 degrees Fahrenheit in a desert in Xinjiang –  but the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which is not exactly a bastion of climate advocacy, rightly points out the Chinese Communist Party “won’t make climate concessions at the expense of economic growth.” And it’s not wrong: Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that explicitly more than once in the past few years.

Kerry is an experienced diplomat, and it is undeniably a good thing that he is speaking to Chinese leadership about the ways in which the world’s two largest economies can work together to lower those emissions for the sake of the world’s climate. But let’s not be doe-eyed about this. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, is choosing carbon-intensive energy over climate progress.