January 19, 2021

Incoming US climate envoy John Kerry to face China as the world’s biggest polluter

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By Owen Churhill in United States and Jane Cal in Beijing From South China Morning Post

  • With the curtain closing on the Trump administration, environmental advocates are hopeful for an about-face in US federal climate policy
  • But the prospect of a return to a joint effort by the world’s top two polluters to combat the climate crisis has set off alarm bells among hawks in the US
ohn Kerry speaks at an event during the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain last year. Photo: Reuters

As the Biden administration takes the reins in Washington, the stakes have never been higher for the US relationship with China and the rest of Asia. In the sixth part of a post-US-election series, Owen Churchill and Jane Cai explore how Biden’s pick for climate envoy, John Kerry, faces a balancing act between cooperating with China and rallying other countries to hold Beijing accountable.

When the White House last year blocked then-State Department analyst Rod Schoonover’s written testimony to lawmakers about the national security implications of climate change, it proved to be the last straw for the scientist.

Furious, he resigned – there was a “long history” of policymakers ignoring intelligence they considered inconvenient, said Schoonover, who worked in the department’s bureau of intelligence and research.

“But to actively suppress it, because it has scientific content that was somehow purportedly not congruent to their view of science, as if there are ‘both sides’ – if we hadn’t become inured to it, we would see that as the radical action that it is,” he said.

Trump and Greta Thunberg clash over climate issues at World Economic Forum in Davos

In Schoonover’s eyes, the episode was but one event in a long line of efforts by the Trump administration to sideline scientific evidence and institutionalise climate change denial throughout the federal government.

But with the curtain closing on the Trump administration, Schoonover and other environmental advocates are hopeful for an about-face in US federal climate policy.

The hopes have been fuelled in particular by President-elect Joe Biden’s recent announcement that former secretary of state John Kerry will serve as his special envoy for climate – a prelude, say his supporters, to a return to evidence-based policy and the recognition of the need to engage anew with the world’s biggest polluter: China.

Can Asia-Pacific lead on climate action even as emission levels rise?

For Schoonover, multiple conversations with his former boss Kerry about climate change and national security had left him impressed with his cognisance of “not just of the impact of climate change but also the scientific underpinning of what we know”.

Married with his experience as Washington top’s diplomat, that expertise made Kerry’s appointment a “potentially monumental” one, he said.

Yang Jiechi and John Kerry participate in a meeting on June 24, 2015 at the State Department in Washington. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

Yang Jiechi and John Kerry participate in a meeting on June 24, 2015 at the State Department in Washington. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

As secretary of state under Barack Obama, it was Kerry who founded the US-China Climate Change Working Group with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, and who helped broker negotiations with Beijing that ultimately paved the way for the Paris Agreement, which Trump abruptly withdrew from in 2017.

The prospect of a return to a joint effort by the world’s top two polluters to combat the climate crisis has set off alarm bells among some political circles in the US, amid a hardening of attitudes towards Beijing.

Republican hawks on Capitol Hill, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, said Kerry would too easily give away concessions to Beijing to “smooth relations” and gain commitments on climate action.

John Kerry will jet off to Beijing in pursuit of a climate accord with the world’s biggest polluter, the Chinese Communist Party. If Xi Jinping plays along, he’ll demand concessions. And we know what that means: more shuttered factories in the U.S., more hot air from Beijing.— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton)

The Wall Street Journal editorial board, meanwhile, called Kerry’s selection “catnip for China”.

The Biden transition team did not respond to requests for comment, but public remarks by Kerry in recent months give some indication that he favours persuasion over coercion.

“China understands where its own self-interest lies,” he said during a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace panel in July. “And its self-interest does not lie in having a climate crisis on a global basis with the instability that will come with it.”

Kerry, a former Democratic presidential candidate, said the US should approach China “in a responsible, adult way”, veiled criticism of the unpredictable, bellicose approach that has characterised the Trump administration’s dealings with Beijing for much of the past four years.

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But Kerry has struck sterner notes too, expressing confidence in a September interview with The Guardian that Biden would not “lavish praise on dictators”, and insisting that any cooperation on climate with China could coexist with actions to address other “serious problems in the relationship”.

Schoonover, now the founding head of consulting firm Ecological Futures Group, disagreed with the characterisation of Kerry as being unwilling or incapable of being “tough on China”. 

“I’d also add that there’s very little hope of really combating climate change without the participation of China and India and other countries,” he said, adding that “a poor foreign policy would be one that says or acts as if China is the enemy in every case”.

Rod Schoonover testifies before lawmakers during a US House intelligence committee hearing in June last year. Image: US House of Representatives

Rod Schoonover testifies before lawmakers during a US House intelligence committee hearing in June last year. Image: US House of Representatives

Across the Pacific, climate and diplomatic experts in China shared the view that cooperation between Washington and Beijing on climate was not only crucial, but also more likely with Kerry at the helm.

“The appointment is generally positive for China,” said He Weiwen, a former US-based Chinese diplomat. “Kerry played a key role in the Sino-US collaboration on climate change five years ago, and China is looking forward to such cooperation happening again down the road.”

“However, Sino-US relations changed dramatically under the Trump administration,” said He, who served in posts in both San Francisco and New York and is now a senior fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation think tank in Beijing. “We have to observe what Kerry will do after he resumes duty before making any judgment.”

Biden’s national security pick ‘deeply concerned’ about Hong Kong crackdown

An early test for Kerry will be how he will both seek cooperation with Beijing and carry out the Biden team’s plan to rally a “united front” of countries to hold China accountable to strict environmental standards in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

Defenders of the Belt and Road Initiative say that the carbon footprint of those overseas projects is merely a function of the economic capacities of the host countries.

“The construction of fossil-fuel plants was because the poverty stricken areas cannot afford the cost of clean energy-fuel power plants,” said He, adding that clean energy power plants had in fact been “increasing significantly” in recent years.

Indeed, China’s share of investment into renewable projects overseas is at an all-time high, according to analysis in September by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a project of research organisations Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute.https://www.youtube.com/embed/

Chinese scientists cover melting glacier with quilts to slow loss linked to climate change

Yet despite that trend, China continues to pump a significant amount of capital into overseas fossil fuel plants, with one quarter of all coal-fired plants being developed outside China involving some form of funding from Chinese financial institutions or companies, according to CAT.

According to the Biden plan, any future carbon mitigation agreement signed with Beijing will be “contingent on China eliminating unjustified export subsidies for coal” and making “verifiable progress in reducing the carbon footprint” of BRI-related projects.

But amid a continuing downturn in the US public’s views towards Beijing, experts examining the Biden administration’s global climate plan said pressure on China should not be deployed simply for the sake of political point scoring.

By “shaming” China, “in some sense you are focusing on your domestic audience more so than what the collaborative undertaking would be,” Bernice Lee, former director of the World Economic Forum’s climate change and resource security initiatives, said on a panel during the recent London Action Climate Week.

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Pang Zhongying, an international affairs analyst at the Ocean University of China in Shandong, was hopeful that, at least in the realm of climate, the bilateral relationship would be a constructive one.

“With Kerry, the seasoned diplomat as the go-between, there are chances the old dream of cooperation can be revived,” Pang said.

China should act quickly to come up with a dialogue and coordination channel specifically for climate change, paving way for talks soon for cooperation in emission reduction technologies and other areas, said Pang.

Such dialogue was frequent before the Trump administration. Obama’s climate envoy, Todd Stern, communicated with Beijing’s climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, around once per month in the years leading up to the Paris Agreement, according to Stern’s then-China counsellor, Vance Wagner.

“They fought and fought and fought and fought, but over time they understood each other, they trusted each other and it’s on that basis that they were able to forge a consensus to enable the two countries to jointly lead,” Wagner said at the London Climate Action Week event. “We can do that again.”

People walk as a thick haze of pollution engulfs Beijing, China in February. Photo: EPA-EFE

People walk as a thick haze of pollution engulfs Beijing, China in February. Photo: EPA-EFEWhile the Trump administration left a void in international climate leadership by leaving the Paris Agreement and rolling back dozens of Obama-era climate policies, China has moved forward with its own action, with president Xi Jinping recently announcing the country’s intent to be carbon neutral by 2060.

China has also become the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles, according to a report last year by BloombergNEF. It buys more than half of the world’s new electric cars, and nearly all the world’s electric buses.

And, as noted in Biden’s climate plan, during the first year of Trump’s presidency, for every US$1 dollar spent on renewable energy in the US, China invested US$3.

Pang said the Biden administration is likely to be tough on China and competition is expected to be the theme of the bilateral relations. “While conflicts are inevitable, China should grasp the opportunity to seek as much cooperation as possible.”

Others, however, were somewhat less optimistic.

Biden may struggle to ‘restore’ foreign policy to tackle China: experts

While the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions met the long-term interests of both countries, paving the way for continued dialogue for the coming few years, “the political premise of the relationship has changed”, said Li Shuo, a climate and energy expert at Greenpeace China.

“Bilateral relations take time to get better,” said Li. “Many people hope the history of US-China cooperation in climate change will repeat itself. I don’t think they’ll have another honeymoon.”

“Unlike the case in 2014 and 2015 when they worked together in climate change, the expected mode down the road will be: ‘You do it your way and I’ll do mine’.”

For more on this story and video go to: SCMP

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