Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua has invited his American counterpart John Kerry to China, boosting hopes that the world’s two biggest emitters can renew their cooperation on climate change.
The two veteran diplomats spoke virtually last week as the US hosted the Major Economies Forum on climate. During this talk, Xie issued an invitation to Kerry, the former US secretary of state told Foreign Policy magazine.
“My hope is that out of these discussions we get back to where we were two years ago because we must be able too cooperate together on this issue”, Kerry said.
While US president Joe Biden’s government has tried to keep climate talks separate to the broader US-China relationship, issues such as the independence of Taiwan and the recent Chinese spy balloon scandal have prevented the two sides from engaging meaningfully on climate change.
Health issues have also hindered progress, with Kerry telling Foreign Policy magazine that Xie suffered “something of a stroke” in January which prevented him from working for “a month and a half or so”. Xie has not made any foreign trips since and his participation in November’s Cop28 climate talks is in doubt.
The appointments were seen as a boost to the chances that the two sides could work together on climate change, as they did under the Obama administration to bring about the Paris agreement in 2015, due to the two men’s long and friendly relationship.
After dozens of virtual and several in-person meetings, these hopes were further boosted at the end of 2021 when the two sides announced a joint agreement on climate at the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow. Both sides committed to discuss measures to reduce methane emissions.
Powerful officials and experts from both countries were supposed to begin discussions on issues such as clean electricity, the circular economy and city climate action, as well as methane, in September 2022.
Pelosi triggers breakdown
But in August 2022, the head of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi went on an official visit to Taiwan, an island nation off China’s east coast that the Chinese government considers part of China.
China reacted by cancelling the climate talks, a move Kerry called “both disappointing and misguided”. Instead of cooperating, official from both sides engaged in public Twitter spats over their climate records.
A few months later in November, tensions cooled after Biden and Xi had a productive meeting on the sidelines of the G20 in Indonesia. They agreed to work together on climate change and their climate teams, both of which were at Cop27 in Egypt at the time, were allowed to talk formally again.
After that meeting, the US announced that its top foreign affairs official Anthony Blinken would visit China. But that trip was cancelled when the US military shot down a Chinese balloon in US airspace in February.
Then in April, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen visited the US and met with Pelosi’s successor as leader of the US House of Representatives, Republican Kevin McCarthy.
According to Thom Woodroofe, senior fellow of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat, the meeting was made less provocative to China because it was held in McCarthy’s home state of California rather than in the US Congress or in Taiwan.
The US government downplayed this trip by calling it a mere “transit stop” on Tsai’s way to the Caribbean.
Despite these setbacks, Kerry told Foreign Policy last week that the two sides are “back in the place where we are hopefully able to move forward”. But, he added, “it’s purely speculative at this point”.
If they did meet, Kerry said they would work together on reducing methane emissions, the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and stopping forests from being destroyed.
Compared to geopolitics, intellectual property and other controversies, climate is considered a relatively easy issue for the two sides to discuss.
Greenpeace East Asia advisor Li Shuo told Climate Home: “If both countries can’t talk on such an issue with shared interest then I don’t know what else is there for the bilateral relationship.”
Woodroofe said that, if the US and China are going to cooperate, it has to be now. Kerry has talked about retiring soon, Xie is unwell and there may be a Republican in the White House next year, he noted.
“Diplomacy is all about personalities and people,” said Woodroofe. “The fact is we have the two elder statesmen – who both have the cache to achieve outcomes – it’s a really rare and significant situation that can achieve progress”.
“If not them now, then who?” he asked.