China’s top climate diplomat reappointed as special envoy in ‘tailored move towards the US’

Echo Xie
·4-min read

China’s top climate diplomat, Xie Zhenhua, has been reappointed as a special envoy, according to people familiar with the situation.

Xu Huaqing, director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, said on messaging app WeChat on Thursday that Xie would return as special envoy on climate change.

The appointment, which has not been officially announced, was also confirmed by a person familiar with the matter. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment did not respond to a faxed request for comment on Thursday.

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Xie, 71, has been China’s top climate diplomat for over a decade. His appointment comes amid a shift in global climate governance, as the United States moves from the climate change denial of the Donald Trump era to Joe Biden’s engagement policy.

“This is clearly a tailored move towards the US, an effort to ensure the diplomatic channels are there,” said Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia.

“With Xie’s experience and contacts, his appointment will at least help to reduce the transactional cost in China’s climate diplomacy,” he said. “The bottom line for solving the climate problem is that the two biggest emitters in the world need to talk, if not hold each other’s hand.”

While his responsibilities were not clear, Li said that as special envoy, Xie would likely represent China in multilateral climate talks and play a key role in the country’s climate diplomacy.

Xie is well past the Communist Party’s retirement age of 65 for ministerial-level officials, but he is not the only exception to the rule – others include Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, who is 68.

As vice-chairman of top economic planner the National Development and Reform Commission, Xie led China’s delegation at climate talks in Bali in 2007.

Since then, he has been at the forefront of international climate negotiations and oversaw China’s shift from defending its “right to emit” to promoting green and low-carbon development.

Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai is one of the few Chinese officials – along with Xie – to remain in his post past the Communist Party’s retirement age of 65. Photo: AFP
Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai is one of the few Chinese officials – along with Xie – to remain in his post past the Communist Party’s retirement age of 65. Photo: AFP

At the Copenhagen and Durban climate summits in 2009 and 2011, Xie hit out at developed countries, saying they were not entitled to ask developing nations to do more because they had failed to fulfil their own responsibilities.

He was also a key contributor to the US-China joint announcement on tackling climate change in 2014 and to the Paris Agreement a year later.

Xie stepped down in early 2020 and has since been both a senior adviser to the environment ministry and dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

His appointment as special envoy comes at a critical time for global cooperation on climate change, and Xie is seen as a competent leader with the necessary experience, according to analysts.

“[Xie] will play an important role in the current situation given his experience and contacts,” said Ma Jun, director of Beijing-based NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“Global climate governance is back on track, and there are intensive and complex issues to deal with.”

President Biden has begun a radical shift on climate policies from the Trump era, announcing that the US would rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office.

Last week he signed a sweeping new set of executive orders, putting climate change at the centre of Washington’s national security and foreign policy.

New US climate envoy John Kerry has said the US plans to announce a target for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 under the Paris accord before an international climate summit that Biden will host on April 22, according to a Reuters report.

Ma said climate may be one of the few areas for cooperation in the increasingly tense relationship between China and the US.

“The potential is huge and the cooperation is necessary between the two biggest emitters, even though there will be disagreements or contradictions,” he said.

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