Xi Says China Will Act on Climate Goals at Its Own Pace

During his visit to China this week, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, pressed the hope that the two powers could work together on the urgent problem of global warming despite their intensifying rivalry on other fronts.

But Chinese officials made clear that even as they were willing to restart long-stalled climate talks with the United States, the two countries’ tense overall relationship could constrain cooperation. And China’s leader, Xi Jinping, asserted that his government would pursue its goals to phase out carbon dioxide pollution at its own pace and in its own way.

Mr. Xi did not meet Mr. Kerry during the envoy’s four-day visit, but he reiterated China’s position in a speech to environmental officials in Beijing. China remained “unwaveringly” committed to reaching its peak in carbon emissions before 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2060, he told them this week, according to the official People’s Daily on Wednesday.

“But,” Mr. Xi added, “the pathway and means for reaching this goal, and the tempo and intensity, should be and must be determined by ourselves, and never under the sway of others.”

It was a remark that illustrated how even in global warming — where international negotiations can succeed or fail depending on whether China and the United States get along — Beijing views Mr. Kerry’s entreaties for a kind of limited climate truce with some wariness. It also underscored the resistance that Mr. Kerry faces in urging China to peak its climate pollution as early as possible before 2030.

Mr. Kerry is the latest of several Biden administration officials to travel to Beijing in an effort to steady relations after months of rancor between China and the United States sent ties to their lowest point in decades.

The U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, being greeted by China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Tuesday.Credit…Pool photo by Florence Lo

Over three days of talks, Mr. Kerry had urged Chinese officials to isolate climate change from the broader challenges in the relationship, arguing that the urgency of cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the atmosphere required the two countries, by far the world’s two biggest polluters, to do more.

Acknowledging that China and the United States had their differences, he told China’s vice president, Han Zheng, on Wednesday: “Climate should be free standing, because it is a universal threat to everybody on the planet.”

But Wang Yi, a top foreign affairs official who advises Mr. Xi, told Mr. Kerry on Tuesday that China’s cooperation with the United States on climate “cannot be separated from the broader environment of Chinese-U.S. relations,” according to the official Chinese summary of their talks.

Beijing and Washington have skidded from dispute to dispute since President Trump’s years in office, and the antagonism only deepened in some ways during Mr. Biden’s term.

The two powers have been increasingly at odds over Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as its territory. Those tensions spiked last year when the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan. In response, China held menacing military drills near the island and suspended climate talks.

The Biden administration has also sought to restrict China’s access to advanced semiconductors and other technological know-how held by Western companies that could aid the Chinese military, a move that Beijing has denounced as a campaign to stymie its economic rise.

Excavators transferring coal at a port in Lianyungang, China, in May.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Wang said the United States should follow a “reasonable, pragmatic and positive” policy toward China, and highlighted Beijing’s demands that Washington “appropriately handle” issues around Taiwan.

Mr. Kerry has spent much of his week in Beijing locked in a series of closed-door meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, in an effort to strike a deal on joint cooperation around climate change. He called it “vital” that the world’s two largest emitters work together to stave off a planetary crisis, and urged leaders to take the heat waves scorching parts of China and the United States as a sign of worse to come if they fail to slash greenhouse gases.

The United States has been prodding China to curtail its rapidly expanding development of coal-fired power plants and set out a plan to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells that is responsible for roughly 30 percent of global warming.

On Tuesday Mr. Kerry and Mr. Xie dined on duck together after two days of marathon negotiations that went past 8 p.m. each night. In an interview, Mr. Kerry said the two countries still have “difficult issues” to work through and insisted any agreement with China “has got to be real.”

China emits 31 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from combusting coal, oil and gas, according to the Global Carbon Budget, an international scientific project. The United States has long been the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and is still the second biggest, emitting 14 percent of the global total.

China has its own reasons to more urgently reduce its greenhouse gas pollution, which is by far the highest of any economy in the world. A summer of record-busting heat waves and of floods has shown how exposed China is to a global pattern of increasingly extreme weather.

Rescuers evacuating trapped residents during a flood in Wanzhou District, in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, in July.Credit…Ran Mengjun/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Yet while China has built more wind and solar power than the rest of the world combined, and is on track to double its green energy capacity by 2025, the Chinese government has resisted calls to bolster its climate targets or stop the permitting of new coal-fired power plants.

There is also lingering suspicion in China that the United States could turn its back on its climate promises under a future administration, as it did under President Trump, who pulled the United States out of an international climate agreement and promoted coal growth.

“The Chinese also want to see results from the U.S. to believe it will deliver,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University who is based in China.

Beijing’s friendly reception of Mr. Kerry is also part of a broader effort to reduce tensions with the United States to bolster confidence at a difficult time for China’s economy, experts said.

“It’s very difficult for China to manage that confidence deficit if the most important relationship for China — the U.S.-China relationship — is in free fall,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former director for China on the National Security Council who now teaches at Georgetown University.

President Joe Biden last met in person with President Xi Jinping of China in Bali, Indonesia, last November.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Xi also has his eye on a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco in November, when he may also hold a summit with President Biden. China’s leaders “want a decent relationship for Xi Jinping to come to the United States and not be embarrassed,” Mr. Medeiros said.

“It’s important not to overstate the current moment in the U.S.-China relationship,” he said. “It is not détente. It’s far from it.”

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