US hopes Xi Jinping will unveil further measures to fight climate crisis at summit this week

Owen Churchill
·6-min read

The Biden administration hopes China will unveil further measures to combat the climate crisis at the US-hosted climate summit this week, said a senior administration official on Wednesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is among an expected roster of 40 heads of state who will make an appearance at the climate summit, and is expected to deliver a speech on Thursday, the first of two days of the event.

“We certainly hope that President Xi will come to the meeting and further elaborate on some of the additional efforts that China would choose to make,” the official, speaking on background, told reporters.

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Such expectations come in the wake of recent remarks by a Chinese diplomat that China would be unlikely to increase the ambition of its climate goals, citing the country’s status as a developing country.

“Some countries are asking China to fast forward the process,” Le Yucheng, vice-minister of foreign affairs, told Associated Press. “That, I am afraid, is not very realistic.”

The Chinese government last year announced targets to peak emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030 and reach net zero by 2060.

While it has welcomed those pledges from China, the Biden administration has also expressed concern about the country’s continued deployment of coal power.

“We must insist Beijing do more to reduce emissions,” a State Department spokesman said last week, warning that China was not on track to meet the Paris Agreement objective to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.

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Xi will speak during an opening session on Thursday morning devoted to the world’s major economies, responsible for around 80 per cent of global emissions. Beyond speeches, the two-day gathering will also feature sessions around climate financing, innovation, and opportunities for economic growth.

In a break from standard practice at international summits where sideline talks are commonplace, there will be no bilateral meetings at this week’s forum. That decision was due in part, said officials, to the “technical challenge” posed by a virtual forum.

The summit comes as the climate crisis emerges as one of few areas of potential collaboration between the US and China in an otherwise strained, even adversarial, relationship.

In an apparent warning to Beijing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that the administration would not treat other countries’ progress on climate “as a chip they can use to excuse bad behaviour in other areas that are important to our national security”.

While Blinken did not mention China by name, the remarks came amid charges from congressional Republicans that outreach to Beijing on climate could force concessions from Washington in other areas of the bilateral relationship.

Biden’s climate diplomacy chief, John Kerry, has repeatedly stressed that the administration will keep the issue in a separate silo to any of Washington’s other concerns with Beijing.

Following meetings in Shanghai last week between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, the two countries agreed to cooperate on addressing the “urgency” of the climate crisis, including working together to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.

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US hopes for further action from Beijing come as the Biden administration itself is set to unveil a new, near-term emissions target designed to pave the way for its objective of net zero emissions by 2050.

US President Joe Biden has sought to present his climate agenda as both a response to an existential threat and an opportunity to boost sustainable economic growth and create jobs, an argument that has won over few in the Republican Party, with Montana Senator Steve Daines calling Biden’s strategy a “war on the American energy industry”.

Republican crowing over climate action continued this week in response to congressional Democrats’ reintroduction of the Green New Deal, non-binding legislation that calls for decarbonisation of the economy within 10 years.

Analysts anticipate similar blowback from Republicans to any outcomes of this week’s summit.

“No matter what happens on Thursday and Friday, it’s going to get some Republican spin,” said Samantha Gross, an energy security expert at Brookings Institution, at a Tuesday panel event hosted by the think tank.

In particular, the political right has questioned the need for an aggressive US climate policy given that China is by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 30 per cent of global emissions versus the United States’ 15 per cent.

But that argument glossed over both the reality that China has already unveiled a number of significant emissions targets and that the US, alongside Europe, still bears historic responsibility for the current crisis, Sanjay Patnaik of Brookings Institute said on Tuesday.

“About 70 per cent of the CO2 in the atmosphere currently that has been created after the industrial revolution was created by Europe and the United States, so I think it’s really important that these two blocks move first,” said Patnaik, director of Brookings’ centre on regulation and markets.

Nonetheless, experts and US climate officials are warning that China must accelerate its phase-out of coal power if it is to meet its own targets of net zero carbon emissions by 2060.

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“For China, it’s coal, coal, coal – that’s where the ambition has to be,” said Amar Bhattacharya, senior fellow at Brookings’ centre for sustainable development, pointing to China’s continued use of coal power to generate more than half of the country’s energy.

While praising China’s deployment of renewable energy, Kerry said over the weekend that such progress did not negate the need to phase out coal, adding that the subject had taken up a large portion of his meetings with Chinese officials in Shanghai.

“China is the biggest coal user in the world,” he told reporters in Seoul. “And because it’s such a big and powerful economy and country, it needs to move.”

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