Kerry: U.S. must work with China on fighting climate change

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Despite mounting tensions between the United States and its rivals China and Russia, President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, told Yahoo News that the U.S. must work with those adversaries on combating climate change.

“We have to work with China, we have to work with India,” Kerry said during an interview Friday at Yahoo News’ New York offices. “We even have to find a way, ultimately, if we can resolve the war in Ukraine, to work with Russia, because Russia is a huge emitter. And any one of these countries has an ability — if it doesn't move to change its energy base — to make it much harder for the rest of the world, if not impossible, to reach the goals we've set.”

China is by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which scientists have established are causing global temperatures to rise. The United States is the second-largest emitter, followed by India and Russia. But China, with a population of 1.4 billion people and as the world’s second-largest economy, towers over the others. Its emissions are more than double those of the U.S., and Kerry echoed United Nations climate change experts who say that the world will be unable to avert catastrophic climate change unless China takes more significant steps to curb emissions.

Three images of John Kerry.
Climate czar John Kerry. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Ethan Hill for Yahoo News)

“President Biden empowered me to reach out to China and work with China, which we have done for two years, and with some effect,” Kerry said. "Not as much as we need, ultimately.”

Kerry’s comments on the need for U.S. climate cooperation with two of its geopolitical competitors comes at an especially awkward moment. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a two-day summit in Moscow this week intended to present a united front against the U.S. and Europe, who have joined together to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the summit, Putin also reiterated Russia’s position that it considers Taiwan part of China. China has increased military maneuvers near the island, which it reportedly hopes to seize. The U.S. has countered by arming allies in the South Pacific and beefing up U.S. military forces in the Philippines. Biden has also said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

Despite those disagreements, the U.S. and China have kept an open line of communication on climate change. In November 2021, Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, jointly announced “a road map for our future collaboration” on the issue. Both nations said they would work to phase out coal and reduce emissions of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, but China has not yet laid out specific targets or reduction plans.

“Our president has tried hard to separate climate from the other issues that are real that we obviously have with China, but we can't get bogged down by that, because this is a universally felt existential challenge to the planet,” Kerry said. “And it's important that the two largest economies in the world work to try to resolve it.”

Whereas China has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, the U.S. and Japan, the fifth-largest climate polluter, have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Like China, India and Russia have been reluctant to commit to emissions reductions as ambitious as those laid out by the U.S. or Japan. India, whose population is set to overtake China’s this year, has committed to a 2070 target for reaching net-zero emissions.

Russia, one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, has proposed to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, but it has not adopted policies that would set it on that course. “Russia’s existing policies indicate no real commitment to curb emissions,” the research organization Carbon Action Tracker states.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia have also been spiraling downward for years, due largely to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, its alliance with Iran and Syria, and its efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Yet Kerry said that the precarious state of the world’s climate requires the U.S. to continue to pursue a diplomatic breakthrough.

“What is happening in Ukraine is an abomination,” he said. “It is a violation of everything we have worked to achieve since World War II, where we put in place rule of law, international law. … So this is an important fight, but it's not an exclusive fight. We also have to deal with climate at the same time.”

On a per capita basis, China and India are much less wealthy than developed nations like the U.S. and Japan, and some climate experts argue that rich countries with outsized historical emissions should be required to achieve net zero emissions sooner than 2050. That would give poorer countries like India more breathing room, allowing them to lift millions out of extreme poverty while beginning to curb emissions. “We need some countries to be net-zero even before 2050, and other countries are going to reach net zero around 2055, and it will balance out around 2050,” a reviewer of the IPCC report told Yahoo News on Monday.

As part of their efforts to limit climate change while raising standards of living, China and India have both begun to ramp up renewable energy production. But both countries continue to burn coal and build new coal-fired power plants.

“[India] understand[s] that they've got to try to find a way to reduce coal, but they're also fighting this question of keeping their folks employed and being able to keep their economy moving,” Kerry said.

He added that China has “the same feeling that, you know, they can't suddenly unemploy their entire population and survive.”

“Now, China is the largest maker of renewable energy in the world,” Kerry added. “They are the biggest supplier of solar panels, biggest deployer of solar panels. In China, they have deployed far more renewable energy than we have or than Europe has. So yes, they're behind [on reducing emissions], and it's a problem. Coal is a problem. But that's why it's important [that] we work with China, we reach out to China.”

On Monday, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that in order to keep average global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius to avert catastrophic climate change, the world will need to achieve a 60% cut in emissions by 2035.

“I know that the world can get there, but I am not convinced that we will,” Kerry said of that goal. “And the biggest reason is there's a business-as-usual attitude in too many places in the world. There are some CEOs still of major corporations who have not moved their companies or haven't bought into scientific facts. There are sort of different cultures and different universes of facts that are passing each other, day and night.

“We're seriously behind,” Kerry conceded. “And that was the meaning of the IPCC report that just came out. It's another kick in the you-know-what to get people moving. So, that's our fight; [it] is to get people to do all the things we can do.”