What John Kerry Seems to Miss About China and the Climate

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 09 2023 |
Photo courtesy The White House

Reducing climate emissions must be a priority. But success will happen when the United States takes the lead, not by reverting back to ignoring China’s predatory practices.

Former Secretary of State and current special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry is back in the news this week after he made a comment about the state of U.S.-China relations on reducing carbon emissions.

Spoiler: Things aren’t going great! Here’s reporting from Axios:

“Regrettably, in the last year … what was not supposed to happen has happened, which is the climate issue has gotten mixed up into all the other tensions that exist between our countries,” Kerry said in an interview at the CERAWeek by S&P Global conference.

“And so they’ve kind of pulled back a little bit, expressing the feeling that all we’re doing is bashing them and bashing them,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Kerry’s remarks earned quick pushback from folks on the right, and it’s easy to see how this controversy could quickly devolve into yet another battle in the never ending culture war.

But that would be a mistake, because there really are some hugely important policy implications at play. That said, John Kerry appears to be playing right into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The CCP would like nothing more than for the United States to revert to its old ways of appeasing CCP officials in the hopes of extracting a couple of promises on climate. But the United States shouldn’t fall for this failed strategy.

Of all the talks that Kerry has held on climate — culminating in a joint U.S.-China declaration in 2021 pledging to reduce carbon emissions — China’s actions have spoken much louder than words.

China remains the world’s top emitter of carbon, accounting for 31% of global emissions in 2021. China’s carbon emissions continue to rise rather than decline, and aren’t expected to reach their peak until 2030.

And it all makes sense when you look at what is powering so much of China’s production: Coal.

A new report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that China permitted two new coal plants per week in 2022. In fact, coal plant project announcements “accelerated dramatically” last year, reaching their highest levels since 2015. “The coal power capacity starting construction in China was six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined,” researchers reported.

They wrote:

“The continued addition of new coal power capacity implies insufficient emphasis on overcoming the power system and power market constraints that perpetuate dependence on coal. The worst-case scenario is that the pressure to make use of the newly built coal power plants and prevent a steep fall in utilization leads to a moderation in China’s clean energy buildout, and/or the promotion of energy-intensive industries to consume the electricity. This could mean a major increase in China’s CO2 emissions over this decade, undermining the global climate effort, and could even put China’s climate commitments in danger.”

This isn’t happening by accident. Reuters recently reported that China’s state planner “underlined a greater role for coal in its power supply on Sunday, saying the fossil fuel would be used to improve the reliability and security of its energy system.”

To sum up: China has repeatedly promised to reduce carbon emissions, but its state planner is prioritizing growth in a sector that has the highest carbon footprint of all energy types.

If this surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention. The CCP is merely using its old, reliable playbook when it comes to climate, the same one it has used for nearly two decades on global trade matters, in promising one thing and doing another.

Whenever the United States or other nations called out the CCP on its unfair trade practices, Chinese leaders frequently promised reform. But reform never happened. Ask the United Steelworkers about China’s legacy of broken promises on steel overcapacity, for example.

This is exactly what is happening with climate. What China wants now is for the old status quo to fall back into place, one in which the U.S. wasn’t really doing much itself to tackle climate except trying to extract some diplomatic pledges to reduce emissions. The old status quo worked for China.

As long as everybody focused on talking and making a bunch of promises, China could continue its bad behavior. On climate, in fact, for years it appeared China was taking the lead. While the U.S. dragged its feet on ramping up its clean energy production, China got to work manufacturing things like electric vehicles and solar panels (driven by dirty energy from coal and reliance on forced labor).

But now the United States has woken up and started to get to work. There is a growing bipartisan consensus that the United States cannot find itself dependent on China for the things we need. That’s why policy like the the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is being put into place, a big step forward in the pivot to clean energy and electric vehicles; it’s even been called “a victory for the climate” by environmental groups. Meanwhile, other industrial policy efforts like the CHIPS and Science Act are increasing U.S. production in other critical sectors.

Of course, all of this is a threat to the CCP, which was counting on the United States and other nations becoming dependent on it for decades to come. The CCP has been incredibly transparent in its desire to dominate global industries, and recent U.S. action — from investments in domestic production to trade enforcement to outbound investment reviews — means that it will be difficult for the CCP to achieve that goal.

There may be some officials in China who care about climate, but reducing emissions has never been the chief motivating factor for the CCP. It always has sought to dominate these new industries, at the expense of U.S. workers, companies, and even our national security.

So no, John Kerry, the United States isn’t just “bashing” the CCP. In actuality, the United States is finally getting serious about reducing its climate emissions — and making sure we have the production capacity and supply chains needed to get the job done right.

Ultimately, that is how we will effectively tackle the challenge of climate change. Rather than continuing to wait for the CCP to live up to its promises, the United States must lead the way via its actions. If we truly care about building a cleaner future, it must be a Made in America one.