China needs to up its game to meet global climate goal: Top US embassy official in Beijing

BEIJING – China and the US have been collaborating “very productively” on fighting climate change, but Beijing needs to raise its game or the world will risk exceeding its temperature target, the current highest ranking US diplomat in China has said.

Since the two countries made a joint declaration at the recent Glasgow climate summit to work together on cutting carbon emissions, curbing deforestation and rolling out green technology, they have been in the process of setting up channels of engagement.

But despite China’s commitment to peak emissions by 2030, scientists worry it will not be enough to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

“It has been a very good year for our collaboration…(But) we are not where we need to be. No countries are where we need to be,” said Mr David Meale, chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Beijing.

President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador, career diplomat Nicholas Burns, has not been cleared by the US Senate for his appointment.

“The 1.5 degree Celsius goal that the world is working towards is in danger. And if we’re going to get to where we need to go, we’re going to have to keep raising our ambition, keep taking new steps, and nowhere is that going to be more important than what China does.”

China is the world’s largest polluter, accounting for 27 per cent of total global emissions. While President Xi Jinping has vowed to control its coal-fired power plants and phase down coal consumption, it has in recent months hiked production to ease a power crisis and prepare for the winter months.

The highly polluting energy source fuels nearly 60 per cent of the country.

But US officials say they do not see this as a step back. “While there are increases in coal production, there is also equal effort to find alternatives. And we’re hopeful,” said Ms Forest Yang, the environment counsellor at the embassy.

A combination of hydro, nuclear and other renewables is expected to make up a quarter of China’s primary energy demand by the end of this decade.

Even so, China has continued to build coal-fired power plants domestically, as well as overseas for which contracts have already been signed.

In a September address to the United Nations, President Xi promised not to build new plants abroad, but Beijing has so far not provided details on this particular commitment, such as on the financing of these projects.

Mr Meale said that the US and China’s climate envoys, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, have met three times, spoken dozens of times and developed “a very collaborative relationship”.

But there is an “extraordinary need for engagement, exchange of expertise, collaborative thinking, to ask ourselves, how can China step up its ambition and step up its timeline, so that we can rescue the 1.5 goal”, said Mr Meale, who was speaking to reporters as the embassy launched an outdoor art exhibition featuring American street art with a climate change theme.

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Analysts remain sceptical about the extent of cooperation especially over green technology, given the two countries’ battle in the tech sphere. Innovations in photovoltaic systems, electric vehicles to carbon capture, just to name a few technologies, will be key to fighting climate change.

Mr Meale acknowledged that businesses from both sides will be competing to develop green technology. “And in doing so, they’re going to spur each other into better outcomes that are going to be, in my view, of service to humanity.”

“But we can’t get away from some of these uncomfortable technology questions. And one way to make climate change cooperation productive is to be able to express expectations” about the responsible use and development of these technologies.

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