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US climate envoy John Kerry to visit China

John Kerry. (Stefani Reynolds/Abaca Press/TNS)
July 10, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, will travel to Beijing this month for talks with Chinese officials on global warming, a State Department official said on Friday. The trip will mark the third to China in the last month by a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet.

The trip will take place in the week starting July 16, an official at the State Department told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity because the travel plans have not yet been officially announced. 

Kerry is expected to meet with Xie Zhenhua, his Chinese counterpart as special envoy for climate change. The pair have not met publicly for talks since then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 trip to Taiwan threw ties between Beijing and Washington off course.

In an interview with The New York Times, Kerry said he would seek “genuine cooperation” during the visit, which follows trips by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

“China and the United States are the two largest economies in the world and we’re also the two largest emitters,” Kerry said. “It’s clear that we have a special responsibility to find common ground.”

The meetings will take place as the El Niño pattern sets in, causing record-setting temperatures and flooding in China. Meteorological authorities also say that July 4 was the hottest ever recorded day.

Important talks

Kerry’s trip will be his third to China as climate envoy since Biden appointed the former U.S. secretary of state to the role in 2021.

It comes as American and Chinese officials cautiously test a thaw in relations after almost a year of intensifying bad blood over issues like the status of the self-governing island of Taiwan, the alleged Chinese spy balloon found over the United States and microchip exports.

The stakes in the talks for climate change mitigation will be high: China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, responsible for about 30% of emissions, while the United States is second, at about 10%.

Even though China has emerged as a frontrunner in global renewable energy – thanks to a blend of incentives and regulatory policies to host about 50% of the world’s operational wind and solar capacity – fossil fuels also currently generate about two-thirds of China’s electricity.

In 2022, China alone accounted for 53% of the world’s coal-fired electricity generation, showing a dramatic revival in appetite for new coal power projects. Chinese officials have said emissions will likely peak in 2030 before slowing down to reach net zero by 2060.

Last year, Beijing approved the highest new coal-fired power capacity in eight years. That has continued this year, environmental group Greenpeace said in April, with China’s government approving at least 20.45 GW of new coal capacity in the first three months of 2023.

Yet climate change remains one of the most visible areas where U.S. and Chinese officials have sought cooperation in recent years.

In May, the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said the two governments have a joint interest in working to mitigate climate change. Despite the tense relations between the countries, he said, Kerry and Xie kept talking and “work together … very effectively.”

“It doesn’t mean they always see eye to eye,” Burns said at an online event hosted by the Stimson Center. “But I think both governments want to work to see if we can achieve the U.N. target of limiting the average global increase to 1.5 degrees Centigrade.”