China and the United States agree that climate change is a crisis whipping up worsening droughts and storms across the planet. Yet escalating tensions over trade, security and human rights threaten to overshadow efforts between the world’s top two greenhouse gas polluters to stop global temperatures from hitting catastrophic levels.
The United States envoy for climate, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, are wrangling this week over those steps in Tianjin, a northern Chinese city, seeking common ground before international negotiations in Glasgow in November. Leaders from nearly 200 countries will try to agree on intensified efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and money to help the poorest nations prepare for the effects of global warming.
Hopes for a breakthrough in Glasgow rest heavily on whether China and the United States can build momentum. But on Wednesday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned Mr. Kerry that antagonism from the United States on other fronts could hobble climate cooperation.
“The United States should stop regarding China as a threat and adversary,” Mr. Wang told Mr. Kerry, according to the Chinese foreign ministry. Work between the two nations on climate change, he said, “cannot possibly be divorced” from other looming geopolitical tensions.
“The U.S. side hopes that climate cooperation can be an ‘oasis’ in China-U.S. relations, but if that ‘oasis’ is surrounded by desert, it will also become desertified sooner or later,” Mr. Wang added.
Mr. Kerry told Mr. Wang that the United States remained committed to “cooperating with the world to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” the State Department said by email.
The talks, which will continue through Friday, reflect the precarious role that global warming has come to play between the Biden administration and Xi Jinping, China’s robustly nationalist leader. Climate change could spur the two countries to cooperate on developing emissions-cutting technology, but it is also a point of discord.
Still, it was unclear whether Mr. Wang’s combative remarks were shadow boxing to project China’s muscular image or foreshadowed a real shift in climate talks. When the deputy secretary of state, Wendy R. Sherman, held talks in Tianjin in July, Mr. Wang and another Chinese diplomat also publicly upbraided her about the Biden administration’s China policies.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Xie have both described global warming as a threat that demands all countries work together. Signs of climate disruption this year — ferocious floods in China and Europe, drought and fires across the western United States, rainfall high on an ice sheet in Greenland — have underscored what is at stake.
Administration officials said that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Xie had held about 18 meetings since the start of the Biden administration, a sign that both are committed to striking a deal. Mr. Kerry, 77, and Mr. Xie, 71, both came out of retirement from government after Mr. Biden took office.
“Kerry and Xie have been able to carve out a channel for ongoing communication on climate change, which is extremely valuable right now,” Joanna I. Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University who studies Chinese climate policy, said by email. “Yet it is increasingly difficult to fully insulate climate change from the broader tensions.”
Tensions over climate action go back two decades, even before China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The latest friction centers on calls from the Biden administration and other governments for China to speed up phasing out use of coal at home and end financing for coal power overseas.
The United States and other countries are also pressing China to agree on seeking to limit global warming this century to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above the preindustrial average. That target would require nations to make steeper and more immediate cuts than agreed to under the accord reached in Paris in 2015, which says countries should work to keep temperature rises to “well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees.”
A United Nations panel for assessing climate science concluded in 2018 that catastrophic rises in sea levels and weather disasters would be unavoidable if temperatures rose beyond 1.5 degrees, and a new overview of the science released last month reinforced that warning.
China’s leader, Mr. Xi, declared last year that China’s emissions would peak before 2030, and that by 2060 the country would reach carbon neutrality — releasing no more carbon dioxide into the air than it removes through new technologies and growing forests.
Keeping the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees will be nigh impossible, though, unless China halts its emissions growth in the next few years, if not immediately, and reaches carbon neutrality by 2050. China’s annual carbon dioxide emissions are about the same as those of the next three biggest emitters combined: the United States, the European Union and India.
China’s latest five-year development plan, released in March, indicated that the government could allow coal consumption — the main source of emissions — to grow for years yet, offsetting the country’s rapid advances in solar and wind power.
“Kerry and his team are completely focused on this decade, keeping 1.5 alive,” said Todd Stern, who served as the U.S. climate envoy under former President Barack Obama. That means China cannot put off stopping its growth in emissions, he said, adding: “Unless you make a big move right now, you’re not going to get there.”
In the lead-up to Glasgow, Mr. Kerry has also asked China to curtail building coal power plants abroad, and China may be more open to that step. Some countries, such as Vietnam and Pakistan, that turned to China for coal plants have been pulling back from projects.
Mr. Xie has pushed back at pressure from Washington on a new temperature goal. The current ceiling was agreed on only after intense negotiations, and Mr. Xie said in a recent speech that revisiting the issue would simply distract governments from taking action.
China has its own doubts about American resolve. The memory of former President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement is still fresh.
President Biden returned to the accord when he took office and pledged that the United States would cut emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Still, the United States is not quite on track to meet its current goal of cutting emissions up to 28 percent by 2025. Meeting the even steeper targets will require passage of legislation that still faces serious political hurdles in Congress — a fact not lost on Chinese leaders.
“When the U.S. pushes for 1.5, it’s hard not to be cynical,” said Li Shuo, a Chinese analyst for Greenpeace. He said China could announce new measures, but probably not during Mr. Kerry’s visit, lest leaders be seen as bowing to pressure.
“If you understand our political system, the contentious nature of the bilateral relationship, it would be political suicide,” he said.
Liu Yi contributed research.