China, US trade climate barbs as ties fray

A coal-storage center in China’s Jiangxi province. China late last year boosted coal-production capacity
A coal-storage center in China’s Jiangxi province. China late last year boosted coal-production capacity


Once a rare bright spot, the fight against global warming is the latest source of tension between the world’s top greenhouse-gas emitters

SINGAPORE : Climate policy is fast becoming a new bone of contention between Washington and Beijing, after China retaliated for this month’s visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by halting talks with the U.S. over how to combat global warming.

The self-ruled island is already a focal point for a number of issues clouding Sino-U.S. ties, from rivalry in the Indo-Pacific and the clash between democratic values and autocracy to the strategic struggle for semiconductor supremacy. But up until Mrs. Pelosi (Calif. D.) defied Beijing’s warnings and made her whistle-stop trip, climate change had been a rare bright spot in the increasingly testy relationship between the world’s two biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.

On Aug. 5, with Chinese warplanes and warships carrying out maneuvers off Taiwan’s coast in the wake of Mrs. Pelosi’s departure, Beijing said it would cancel or suspend cooperation with Washington on key issues including direct military talks, counternarcotics and transnational crime.

Eighth and last on the list was halting climate talks, ending any hope that the struggle against global warming could avoid getting caught in the downward spiral of Sino-U.S. relations.

“Suspending climate cooperation doesn’t punish the United States, it punishes the world, particularly the developing world," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Aug. 6, in wording echoed by senior U.S. officials, including climate envoy John Kerry.

China hadn’t punished the world and developing countries, Mr. Kerry’s counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, told China Daily. Instead, it was the U.S. that had done so, he said, accusing Washington of an inconsistent record on tackling climate change and having “greatly undermined" international motivation to do so through its actions, including former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement.

When asked Tuesday in Washington what would be needed for Beijing to rescind its decision, Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang said the U.S. should refrain from any further action to escalate tensions. A day earlier, Beijing announced fresh drills after another group of U.S. lawmakers met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen—an event Mr. Qin called provocative and unhelpful.

The suspension of talks won’t affect either country’s targets in the short term because these will be driven by policy makers responding to domestic pressures, said Deborah Seligsohn, a professor of Chinese politics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and a former U.S. diplomat.

But without agreement between China and the U.S., she said, it may prove difficult to prod other countries to adopt more ambitious measures at COP27, the next big United Nations climate conference to be held in Egypt in November.

Under President Biden, the U.S. rejoined the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, and pledged to at least halve its greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

On Tuesday, Washington moved closer to meeting those targets after Mr. Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers about $369 billion for climate and clean-energy programs.

“The U.S. is acting on climate change," Nicholas Burns, Washington’s ambassador to China, tweeted before the bill’s passage, calling on Beijing to reconsider its suspension of climate cooperation.

“Good to hear," China’s Foreign Ministry tweeted in reply. “But what matters is: Can the U.S. deliver?" Washington has yet to meet its commitment to provide funding for developing countries to help cope with the impact from climate change, it said.

Beijing has said its emissions will peak before 2030 and hit net zero before 2060, and has published plans to achieve those goals across a range of sectors. The country has emerged as a leader in the transition to clean energy: China installed 31 gigawatts of solar-energy capacity in the first six months of 2022, more than double the amount a year earlier, according to state media, and is by a long stretch the top producer of silicon panels; hydroelectric power output, meanwhile, increased by a fifth in the first half, data from China’s Electricity Council show.

China’s carbon emissions fell 4.1% for the first five months of 2022 from a year earlier, according to Carbon Monitor, though mainly because of an economic downturn driven by Beijing’s zero-Covid policies and a property slump. U.S. emissions rose 5.7% over the same period, the international monitoring project’s data show.

Rising energy prices and fears over supplies, in part caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sparked a scramble for fossil fuels in many countries, regardless of their impact on emissions. Mr. Biden tapped strategic oil reserves to cool pump prices. Similar concerns led China in late 2021 to boost coal-production capacity.

To what extent formal arrangements are needed for dialogue to continue is unclear. Messrs. Kerry and Xie were talking months before a working group on climate issues was formally established, said Michael Davidson, assistant professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy of the University of California, San Diego.

After an acrimonious first meeting between Washington and Beijing’s top diplomats in March 2021, the two climate envoys met in-person the next month, and spoke nearly biweekly before the U.S.-China climate working group was formalized at November’s COP26 in Glasgow. Since then, the two speak every “eight to nine days," Mr. Xie told the Davos World Economic Forum in May.

The fact that Mr. Xie was among the few Chinese diplomats allowed to travel for face-to-face meetings shows Beijing regarded climate diplomacy as an important track, said Yan Qin, lead carbon analyst at financial-data company Refinitiv.

Still, substantive progress this year has been hamstrung by domestic constraints. Much time was taken up trying to settle the subgroups under the working group, a person familiar with the discussions said.

Negotiations were limited to narrow technical topics, with broader issues vital for addressing climate change off limits, such as trade, technology and supply chains, said Mr. Davidson.

Washington insists climate is a stand-alone issue. It rebuffed Beijing’s request to reduce tariffs on solar panels imposed over alleged human-rights abuses in the Xinjiang region that raised clean-energy costs for U.S. consumers. China retorted that, “If the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the oasis will be desertified."

Beijing offered no details on what the suspension of the climate talks entailed and whether it would affect U.S. initiatives outside of the federal government, such as with California. When Huang Runqiu, China’s minister of ecology and environment, visited Washington in July, he also met with California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

China’s decision to end climate talks shows how far trust between the two sides has eroded, another person familiar with the discussions said, adding that even during the Trump presidency, Beijing kept climate as an open door for the U.S.

“It’s clear that climate can’t carry the relationship," said Villanova University’s Ms. Seligsohn.

Catch all the Politics News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.


Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App