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China warns U.S. climate cooperation at risk over political tension

The United States has long hoped to keep climate issues separate from its disputes with China on issues such as trade and human rights.
/ Source: Reuters

SHANGHAI — A senior Chinese diplomat has warned the United States that political tension between Beijing and Washington could undermine efforts by the world's top two sources of greenhouse gas to cooperate in the fight against climate change.

The United States, which has resumed its role in global climate diplomacy after a four-year hiatus under President Donald Trump, has long hoped to keep climate issues separate from its disputes with China on issues such as trade, human rights and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, told John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, that the United States saw the two sides' joint efforts against global warming as an "oasis," the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.

"But surrounding the oasis is a desert, and the oasis could be desertified very soon," Wang said, speaking by video link on Wednesday. "China-U.S. climate cooperation cannot be separated from the wider environment of China-U.S. relations."

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meets with Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry in Tokyo on August 31, 2021.Behrouz Mehri / Pool via REUTERS

Kerry told Wang that Washington wanted China to do more on climate, a State Department spokesperson said.

"Secretary Kerry affirmed that the United States remains committed to cooperating with the world to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands, and encouraged the PRC to take additional steps to reduce emissions," the spokesperson said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

Kerry is in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin for face-to-face talks with Xie Zhenhua, China's special climate envoy, on the countries' joint response to the climate crisis.

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In a separate video meeting with Kerry, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng urged the United States to "create a good atmosphere of cooperation," Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, said on Thursday.

Kerry responded that the United States was willing to improve communications between the two, it added.

Climate watchers hope the talks will bring more ambitious pledges from both countries to fight greenhouse gas emissions.

China and the United States "need to realize that beyond their bilateral oasis and desert, the whole planet is at stake," said Li Shuo, a senior climate adviser with environmental group Greenpeace.

"If they don't make joint climate progress fast enough, it is soon all going to be desert."

The Tianjin meeting is the second between Kerry and Xie, following one in April in Shanghai. Kerry's remit is limited to climate change issues.

Though Wang warned that climate change could now be tied to other diplomatic issues, China has said its efforts to cut emissions and adopt cleaner forms of energy are vital to its ambitious domestic agenda.

"Chinese leaders have long said they are engaged in climate action not because of outside pressure, but because it benefits China and the world at large," said Alex Wang, a climate expert and professor at UCLA.

"If that is so, then U.S.-China tensions should not slow Chinese climate action."