Chinese leaders rebuffed attempts by John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, to persuade them to commit to tougher climate action during three days of talks in Beijing, a response that suggested that tensions between the countries are making it difficult to work together on a crisis that threatens the planet.
Mr. Kerry emerged late Wednesday from the lengthy negotiations in Beijing with no new agreements. In fact, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, insisted in a speech that China would pursue its goals to phase out carbon dioxide pollution at its own pace and in its own way.
Still, Mr. Kerry appeared buoyed that the world’s two biggest polluters had restarted discussions, which had been frozen for a year because of strained relations over Taiwan, trade and other issues. He insisted he was not disappointed in the outcome, noting that just talking marked progress.
“We had very frank conversations but we came here to break new ground,” Mr. Kerry said, adding, “It is clear that we are going to need a little more work.”
It is not hyperbole to say that the extent of global warming depends on decisions made by China and the United States. China is now responsible for almost a third of global emissions, more than all other developed nations combined. To avoid the worst consequences of a warming world, it is critical that the United States, the world’s largest emitter throughout history, work with China to slash carbon pollution, experts say.
The talks in Beijing took place as the world measured the hottest two weeks on record and Mr. Kerry urged Chinese leaders to consider the heat scorching parts of China, Europe and the United States as a sign of worse things to come if they fail to slash emissions of greenhouse gases.
Mr. Kerry had hoped to persuade China to start reducing its carbon emissions on a faster timeline and to quickly phase out its heavy use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. While the United States generates 14 percent of global carbon emissions, China is responsible for 31 percent and its pollution is increasing every year. China has said it would hit peak emissions before 2030 and stop adding carbon to the atmosphere by 2060.
But scientists say industrialized countries need to make deep and sharp cuts in carbon emissions now to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Mr. Xi, who did not meet with Mr. Kerry during the envoy’s visit this week, said that China will follow its own timetable regarding emissions reductions. “The pathway and means for reaching this goal, and the tempo and intensity, should be and must be determined by ourselves, and never under the sway of others,” he said in a speech Wednesday according to the official People’s Daily.
Mr. Kerry responded late Wednesday to Mr. Xi’s remark by saying the United States is not “dictating” to China or any nation. “If anything is dictating it is the science,” he said. “All of us should be informed by and compelled by the level of science.”
Later, Mr. Kerry rejected the idea that the United States could or even should compel China to do more. “You don’t come crashing in here and start pushing people around,” he said. “You talk it through, you build a relationship, you give people a rationale for doing something that’s based on their own interest.”
Mr. Kerry noted that the United States and Europe also are still struggling to move away from fossil fuels. “This is hard stuff,” he said. “We acknowledge that.”
He said there were a number of areas of agreement, including around the goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say increasingly severe wildfires, floods, heat and drought will outpace humanity’s ability to adapt. The planet has already warmed 1.2 degrees.
The discussions with Chinese leaders around the country’s coal expansion were among the most challenging, Mr. Kerry said. China has built a number of new coal-fired plants in the past two years, locking the country into its continued use. Mr. Kerry tried unsuccessfully to prod China to curtail its use of coal and implement a plan to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells and coal mines.
At the same time, China is building more solar, wind and other renewable energy than all other countries combined.
Joanna Lewis, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in China’s energy policy, called it “constructive” that the United States and China appeared to be focused on how to expand the use of renewable energy and address energy security and electricity shortage concerns rather than simply pushing Beijing to accelerate its phase out of coal.
“China is running a national experiment to deploy renewable energy at scale, at levels that no other country has ever been able to achieve,” Ms. Lewis said.
Mr. Kerry is the latest of several Biden administration officials to travel to Beijing in an effort to steady relations after months of rancor between China and the United States sent ties to their lowest point in decades.
But unlike visits by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Mr. Kerry’s trip was more about detailed negotiations than about setting a new tone and floor for the bilateral relationship. With the exception of three meetings with Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People, Mr. Kerry and his team spent most of their visit in a conference room of the Beijing Hotel hashing out differences with China’s climate negotiators.
Throughout the talks, Mr. Kerry had urged Chinese officials to insulate climate change from the broader challenges in the relationship, arguing that the urgency of the climate crisis required the two countries to do more.
“Climate should be free standing, because it is a universal threat to everybody on the planet,” Mr. Kerry told Han Zheng, China’s vice president, on Wednesday.
But Wang Yi, a top foreign affairs official who advises Mr. Xi, told Mr. Kerry on Tuesday that China’s cooperation with the United States on climate “cannot be separated from the broader environment of Chinese-U. S. relations,” according to the official Chinese summary of their talks. Thom Woodroofe, a senior fellow at the Asia Society, called Mr. Kerry’s visit to China “a small win for the stabilization of the U.S.-China relationship.”
Beijing and Washington have skidded from dispute to dispute since President Trump’s years in office, and the antagonism only deepened in some ways during Mr. Biden’s term.
The two powers have been increasingly at odds over Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as its territory. Those tensions spiked last August when the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan. In response, China held menacing military drills near the island and suspended climate talks. The Biden administration has also sought to restrict China’s access to advanced semiconductors and other technological know-how held by Western companies that could aid the Chinese military, a move that Beijing has denounced as a campaign to stymie its economic rise.
Mr. Wang said the United States should follow a “reasonable, pragmatic and positive” policy toward China, and highlighted Beijing’s demands that Washington “appropriately handle” issues around Taiwan.
China has its own reasons to more urgently reduce its greenhouse gas pollution, which is by far the highest of any economy in the world. A summer of record-busting heat waves and of floods has shown how exposed China is to a global pattern of increasingly extreme weather.
Yet while China and is on track to double its green energy capacity by 2025, the Chinese government has resisted calls to bolster its climate targets or stop the permitting of new coal-fired power plants.
There is also lingering suspicion in China that the United States could turn its back on its climate promises under a future administration, as it did under President Trump, who pulled the United States out of an international climate agreement and promoted coal growth.
“The Chinese also want to see results from the U.S. to believe it will deliver,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University who is based in China.
Beijing’s invitation to Mr. Kerry to talk about climate issues is also part of a broader effort to reduce tensions with the United States to bolster confidence at a difficult time for China’s economy, experts said.
“It’s very difficult for China to manage that confidence deficit if the most important relationship for China — the U.S.-China relationship — is in free fall,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former director for China on the National Security Council who now teaches at Georgetown University.
Mr. Xi also has his eye on a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco in November, when he may also hold a summit with Mr. Biden. China’s leaders “want a decent relationship for Xi Jinping to come to the United States and not be embarrassed,” Mr. Medeiros said.
“It’s important not to overstate the current moment in the U.S.-China relationship,” he said. “It is not détente. It’s far from it.”
Mr. Kerry said it was better to leave China without a firm agreement than with one that did not include meaningful goals. He said he and Mr. Xie were already discussing scheduling further talks between the United States and China’s negotiating teams.
“These conversations are going to be fairly intense,” he said. “But if we don’t break new ground, it’s going to be even harder to be able to tame the monster that has been created in terms of the climate crisis.”