China convened ministers from around the world on Tuesday to discuss the climate — including a handful whose governments launched sanctions against it just a day earlier.
Those spiraling tensions didn’t spill over into Tuesday’s meeting — an annual summit set up jointly by the EU, China and Canada in 2017 as a counter to Donald Trump’s Paris Agreement exit plan — that was led by China’s Environment Minister Huang Runqiu.
There was “no signal of bad feelings” between the U.S. and the Chinese. It was “quite polite and OK,” but there was “not much new either,” said a minister who attended the summit.
“All is normal here … at least so far everybody has focused on climate,” said one participant, texting from the session. “Maybe there are at least some people in all countries who realize that climate change is as bad as an asteroid on a collision course with our planet, and that this is science, without the fiction.”
Senior EU officials are betting that Beijing will be able to segregate the sanctions battle from climate change.
“Major emitters, like us, need to deliver their highest possible ambition,” European Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans told Tuesday’s meeting.
U.S climate envoy John Kerry said: “We have never expected all countries to take the same steps in the same timeframe” but “we do expect everyone to do enough — and that means doing what it takes to respond to the science, to answer the Earth’s warning to us.”
Last year, President Xi Jinping said China would reach climate neutrality by 2060. “That makes it a whole different ballgame. This is his agenda now, he can’t just roll back on his agenda, he’s the president and chairman of the communist party,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
That commitment was on display, at least rhetorically, on Monday during an acrimonious press conference after a challenging two-day summit between the U.S. and China in Alaska. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying excoriated countries that “gang up on China,” but pressed home that climate was a “common challenge facing mankind.”
“They’re not doing that to be nice to the Americans, or to be nice to the Europeans. They’re doing this out of very clearly defined self-interest,” said Oertel.
Ahead of Tuesday’s virtual summit, China had asked ministers to discuss setting new climate targets for 2030 and reaching net zero ahead of November’s COP26 climate talks, an EU official said. They were also asked to describe what more they would do to raise finance to support poor countries coping with climate change.
An EU summary of the meeting stressed that “countries around the world must commit to net zero emissions by mid-century and undertake significant emission cuts by 2030.”
The U.S. is expected to announce a new 2030 goal ahead of an April 22 leaders’ climate summit. The EU and U.S. have lobbied China to shift its date for peaking greenhouse gas emissions from 2030 to 2025 and to stamp out coal power at home and financing abroad.
“That is a straightforward diplomatic conversation,” said Nick Mabey, the CEO of the E3G think tank and a former U.K. government adviser. “EU and others will cooperate with China to deliver these targets — for example, supporting grid reforms, just transition and green finance implementation — but only if China [raises] ambition, otherwise further bilateral cooperation is pointless.”
Timmermans, who’s in charge of the EU’s Green Deal program for net zero emissions by 2050, said last week that the EU “looks forward to seeing China’s specific climate-related plans in the coming months to understand better the relevant details.”
Major opportunities this year for U.S.-EU-China climate alignment will come up in global economic discussions around greening finance standards and debt reform, experts say.
While the current flurry of sanctions won’t immediately impact cooperation on that front, Oertel said climate conversations would take place “against a certain background of an overall relationship and that has obviously not gotten easier. I think that’s the price also that the Europeans have to pay for these kinds of actions.”
The strategy for engagement and cooperation with China on climate is hotly debated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Li Shuo, a policy expert with Greenpeace in Beijing, said the geopolitical tensions made China’s decision on setting new goals “even more difficult.”
He said the U.S. approach to China is split into two camps. One favors closer engagement, while the other doesn’t believe Beijing can be trusted to act in good faith and that any attempt to broker a climate deal without safeguards is misguided.
“China has no interest in addressing climate change,” James Jay Carofano, the vice president for foreign and security policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, tweeted on Monday. Via a private message he added that “external pressure, boycotts, tariffs” were the only strategies that would be effective.
The EU is already beefing up its climate policy arsenal, and in June the bloc plans to come out with proposals for a carbon border adjustment mechanism to prevent polluting imports from undermining its Green Deal objectives. The idea is that countries that mirror EU climate efforts would be spared — something that could encourage China.
“China does not pursue climate protection to do us a favor. The energy transition is in China’s own interest,” Timmermans said earlier this month.
This article has been updated with a comment from a minister attending the summit.