China vies with US for lead in global climate diplomacy

Xi Jinping, China’s president, touted his climate change commitments in a call with the leaders of France and Germany on Friday, as Beijing vies with Washington to be seen as a leader in global climate negotiations.

Xi told Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, that his pledge last year that China would achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2060 meant the country “would use the shortest time in world history to go from a carbon peak to carbon neutrality”.

Climate change should not become a “geopolitical bargaining chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers,” he added, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

A statement from Merkel’s office said the three leaders had discussed climate protection and biodiversity, ahead of a landmark US climate summit on April 22, and Germany and France “welcomed the fact that President Xi has reaffirmed China’s goal of CO2 neutrality by 2060”.

Xi also announced that China would “accept” a 2016 agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a class of chemical coolants used in refrigerators and air conditioners that are also potent greenhouse gases. 

Chinese officials promoted the European discussion as a “climate summit” although continental counterparts suggested it was part of routine diplomatic dialogue.

The trilateral call came just six days ahead of the US climate summit being billed as a showcase for the new climate policies of President Joe Biden. Biden will unveil a new US climate target — expected to be in the region of a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels — and call on other countries to follow suit.

The US has invited more than 40 leaders, including Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but met resistance from some quarters, including in India where a visit from climate tsar John Kerry went poorly earlier this month.

Chinese state media made no mention of the US-led summit on Friday.

Kerry arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday for meetings with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua — the first visit by a senior administration official to China since Biden took office. But state media has given scant attention to the three-day visit.

Zhao Lijian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, on Friday described the US as a “truant student returning to school” not a “returning king” in climate negotiations, citing Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Li Shou, a Beijing-based campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, said Beijing’s focus on the call with European leaders probably intended to send a signal that “the Biden climate summit is not the only game in town”.

China has in recent months sought to take a more active role in international climate discussions, a shift that analysts say is partly an effort to avoid ceding the territory to Washington. At the same time, Beijing has engaged in a bitter sanctions dispute with the EU, UK, US and Canada over allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

While Kerry has criss-crossed the world to drum up support for the US climate summit, China is not expected to contribute any major new policies at the event.

A vehicle with US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry on board arrives to a state guest hotel during his visit, in Shanghai, China, this week © REUTERS

Jennifer Tollman, a Berlin-based senior policy adviser at E3G, an independent European climate think-tank, said China did not to appear to respond to pressure from the US.

“What really strikes me is the difference in the readout in the two sides,” she said, comparing the sparse German statement with the lengthy Chinese description of the three-way call. “We are seeing a race to the top on who is a climate leader . . . Xi Jinping definitely sees climate as a geopolitical issue.”

A photo of President Xi Jinping on an electric scooter this week on a visit to the Tianneng Battery Group in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China
A photo of President Xi Jinping on an electric scooter this week on a visit to the Tianneng Battery Group in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China © Bloomberg

John Podesta, a former adviser to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, told the Financial Times earlier this week that China and the US wanted to keep channels open on climate but this was “much more complicated” than in 2014 or 2015, when the two countries made joint announcements. 

“Then it was a kind of anchor of stability. Now it has to be preserved as a place of normal diplomatic discussion,” he said. “And that is going to require both sides to do more.”

President Xi’s unexpected announcement last September that China would peak carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2060 had revived hopes for a fresh breakthrough in climate talks, which were stalled by the pandemic and the Trump withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

But China’s five-year economic blueprint released in March undermined its positioning as a global climate leader after it failed to include ambitious new targets or pledge to stop building coal-fired power plants.

Analysts have pointed to China bringing back Xie Zhenhua, who played a central role in reaching earlier China-US climate agreements, into his old job as evidence of the potential for a breakthrough.

Yet China and the US have so far failed to establish a formal mechanism for negotiations after the climate exchanges track set up under Obama was scrapped by Trump.

After a bitter exchange of the two countries’ top diplomats in Alaska last month, China’s official Xinhua news agency announced that the two sides would again set up a working group on climate. But the state department quickly corrected that discussions on the group had not been conclusive.

Kerry has said he would like to silo climate as a “standalone” issue, but China has yet to embrace the idea. “China-US co-operation in specific areas is . . . bound to be closely related to the overall China-US relations,” Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, said in January.

To hit net-zero by 2060, China would need to halve the level of carbon dioxide it produces per kilowatt hour of power by closing, converting or putting into reserve 364 gigawatts of coal power capacity by 2030 — or about 600 plants, according to analysis by TransitionZero, a UK-based think-tank.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin.

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