John Kerry’s Climate Change Diplomacy: Prospects & Constrains

By Dr Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan | Gwadar Pro Jul 21, 2023

Editor's Note: The author is Executive Director of the Center for South Asia & International Studies (CSAIS) Islamabad and Regional Expert on China, BRI & CPEC. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of Gwadar Pro.

Climate change has become a pressing global issue, with recent extreme weather events across the world highlighting the severity of the threat and the need for urgent action. Cooperation between the two major powers and largest emitters, China and the United States, will be crucial to effectively managing this existential risk. 

In this context, John Kerry’s recent climate diplomacy visit to China marked some progress after stalled talks amid broader tensions between the two nations. Kerry met with top Chinese officials including his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, with discussions acknowledging climate change as a “universal threat” requiring joint efforts between the world’s largest economies. The two sides agreed climate should be addressed as a “free-standing” challenge separate from diplomatic disputes. 

However, China also reiterated that cooperation on climate issues cannot be completely detached from the overall political relationship. Chinese state media Xinhua News Agency indicated Beijing is looking for consensus on the political front as well.

On the U.S. side, some aim to pressure China into making massive emissions reductions intended to restrict its economic growth. Even before negotiations commenced, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said China should not “hide behind” its developing country status and must take “significant, substantial action.”

But contrary to criticism, China has already taken major steps toward green transition and emissions reduction. In 2022 alone, China spent over $500 billion on renewable energy projects including wind, solar, batteries and electric vehicles – more than the U.S. and EU combined, as per Chinese official figures. According to China’s National Energy Administration, from 2020-2022, China installed around 140 GW of renewable capacity each year, exceeding the total of the U.S., EU and India.

Likewise, according to statistics by China's National Energy Administration, China now operates close to half the world’s installed offshore wind capacity. It has added 50 GW of solar photovoltaics in the first half of 2022, on track for 120-140 GW this year. Chinese firms have built approximately 70% of hydroelectric stations in South Asia, Africa and beyond. The statistics make China’s commitments to renewable energy and climate action evident.

The restart of high-level climate talks between Beijing and Washington is a welcome development. However, constant U.S. provocations on issues of Chinese core interests have strained bilateral ties, inevitably affecting collaboration against climate change. 

Furthermore, problematic mindsets in the U.S. government and failure to properly acknowledge China’s climate leadership remain barriers. Although achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 is a massive undertaking, China sees it as vital for national sustainable development and global partnership.

In summary, climate change is a universal threat necessitating coordinated efforts between major powers, especially the top emitters. While recent climate diplomacy signals a positive step, continued geopolitical tensions and misguided U.S. stances diminish the prospects for optimal cooperation. China has demonstrated serious commitment and contributions to emissions reduction and green transition, despite accusations to the contrary. Constructive U.S. re-engagement, not coercion, along with recognition of China’s climate progress, will be essential to effectively tackling this global existential challenge.

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