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US-China Tensions Hurt Climate Efforts 03/04 06:28


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The world's hopes for curbing climate change hinge on 
action by two giant nations whose relations are deteriorating: China and the 
United States. The two countries both say they are intent on retooling their 
economies to burn less climate-wrecking coal, oil and gas. But tensions between 
them threaten their ultimate success.

   China and the United States are the world's No. 1 and No. 2 carbon 
polluters, respectively, pumping out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that 
are warming the planet's atmosphere.

   The fast cuts in carbon needed to stave off the worst of climate change are 
all but impossible unless these countries work together and basically trust 
each other's pledges. During the Trump administration, the U.S. used China's 
emissions as an excuse not to act, and in the past China pointed to U.S. 
historical emissions as a reason to resist action.

   New details of how quickly China plans to reduce carbon emissions will be 
revealed Friday when Beijing releases its next Five Year Plan. And in April, 
President Joe Biden is expected to announce the United States' own new targets 
for emissions cuts.

   The U.S. and China both have appointed veteran envoys as their global 
climate negotiators, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua. But while the two senior 
statesmen worked well together in laying groundwork for the 2015 Paris climate 
accord, now they face new challenges.

   U.S.-China climate diplomacy threatens to be overshadowed by what the United 
States sees as Beijing's menacing policies toward Hong Kong, Taiwan and the 
South China Sea, conflict over human rights and trade, and U.S. claims of 
Chinese espionage.

   Meanwhile, Chinese officials are upset about restrictions imposed by the 
Trump administration on trade, technology, Chinese media and students in the 
U.S., and the State Department's declaration this year that atrocities against 
China's Muslim minorities are a "genocide."

   Kerry, a secretary of state under President Barack Obama who was brought 
back to be Biden's climate envoy, recently told reporters: "Those issues" with 
China "will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That's 
not going to happen." But Kerry also called the climate "a standalone issue" 
with China, drawing criticism from China and from some human-rights advocates 
in the U.S.

   Can climate talks between the two countries survive their other geopolitical 

   "That's, I think, the huge question," said John Podesta, who oversaw the 
Obama administration's climate efforts and is close to the Biden administration.

   "Can you create a lane where you get cooperation on climate" while more 
contentious issues are dealt with separately? Podesta asked. "Or do they wind 
up interfering?"

   Xie Zhenhua may help the odds. With his appointment as climate envoy last 
month, Xie is reprising the role he held during pivotal U.N. climate 
conferences that struck the world's first major commitments on reducing 
emissions from fossil fuels.

   Prior to his appointment, Xie led a research effort at Tsinghua University 
in Beijing to map ways for China to stop contributing to global warming by 
midcentury. His research underpinned President Xi Jinping's surprise pledge in 
September that China planned to go carbon neutral by 2060 --- the first time 
the country announced a net-zero target.

   Joanna Lewis, an expert in China energy and environment at Georgetown 
University, called Xie "a visionary, and very influential in setting China's 
domestic policy targets," as well as a skilled negotiator.

   Xie's appointment "was a huge overture toward the United States, and 
particularly to John Kerry," said Angel Hsu, an expert on China and climate 
change at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

   Biden has pledged the U.S. will switch to an emissions-free power sector 
within 14 years, and have an entirely emissions-free economy by 2050. Kerry is 
also pushing other nations to commit to carbon neutrality by then.

   Behind the dry numbers, massive spending on infrastructure and technology is 
needed to switch to a more energy-efficient economy, running on wind, solar and 
other cleaner-burning fuels. And Biden has a narrow majority in Congress to 
push his agenda, with Republicans, as well as some Democrats, opposing his 

   Climate scientists say countries need to move fast to avert catastrophic 
temperature rises.

   In 2019, coal accounted for 58% of China's total primary energy consumption, 
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

   Last year, as China's government directed economic relief money to 
infrastructure projects during the pandemic, the country actually upped  its 
net power capacity from coal --- by about the equivalent of 15 Hoover Dams, or 
30 gigawatts --- according to the Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for 
Research on Energy and Clean Air. China also funds building of coal-fired power 
plants abroad, partly to build influence.

   Many experts question whether the construction of coal-fired plants is 
driven by demand, or simply meant to stimulate the economy during a downturn. 
Either way, the brand-new coal plants have consequences.

   "Every new coal plant that China builds is basically locking in carbon 
emissions for the next 50 years," said Georgetown's Lewis.

   The most important questions now, said Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in 
Chinese governance and air pollution at Villanova University, are: "How soon 
can China's carbon emissions peak, and at what level?"

   She is watching closely to see what targets are incorporated in the next 
Five Year Plan, and into China's updated pledges for emission cuts under the 
Paris climate accord.

   The key, climate negotiators say, will be making it worth China's while --- 
financially and in terms of its international standing --- to slow down its 
building and funding of new coal plants and speed up spending on clean energy.

   Biden has reached out to European allies as a first step, trying to build 
consensus among China's trade partners about market and trade-based rewards and 
disincentives as a way of prodding China to reduce reliance on coal.

   "None of these countries are wanting to save the planet and be completely 
selfless about this," Christiana Figueres, who helped broker the landmark 
climate deal in 2015, told The Associated Press. "Only if it also serves their 

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