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“Together, we can move mountains,” EU Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans said while standing alongside U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. If only they could move China.
That’s the problem the pair confronted during a full day and evening of talks in Brussels Tuesday. Kerry’s trip to Europe — the first from a Biden administration official — came just days after China indicated its intention to allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue rising beyond 2025.
It’s an outcome both the EU and U.S. are lobbying Beijing to avert. Ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow in November, they want the world’s largest polluter to shift its commitment to peak emissions from 2030 to 2025 and to end coal power investment at home and abroad.
But seven weeks into the Biden presidency, the revived transatlantic climate alliance is searching for a common strategy to convince China and other major emitters to, in Timmermans’ words, “do the right thing.”
“It is important for us to align ourselves now, which is what we will discuss today. Because no one country can resolve this crisis,” said Kerry.
Despite years of careful relationship building with Beijing, EU officials admit that Friday’s release of a draft summary of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan was a rebuff.
While China boosted its renewable energy goals, the plan set modest emissions targets that were “hard to square with peaking in 2025 unless you assume very low economic growth over the next few years,” said an EU official. With annual GDP growth of about 5 percent, emissions in 2025 would be 10 percent higher, Yan Qin, an analyst at Refinitiv, estimated.
While the demands from Washington and Brussels may be clear and common, the penalties for ignoring them are not.
“It doesn’t seem like China sees a united front on this as the biggest of risks right now,” said Jennifer Tollmann, a policy expert from the E3G think tank. “Is there a trade consequence for Chinese inaction this year? And is that something that the U.S. and the EU want to discuss jointly or not?”
Options include deploying a carbon border tax — something the EU is working on — or shutting China out of talks on setting clean economy standards, said Tollmann. “Why would you invite somebody to the table if they are not leading the charge?”
For the U.S., dragging climate into its trade confrontation with China is both a risk and a break with past policy, said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a former U.S. diplomat who oversaw China climate policy in the Obama administration. “My own point of view is, you need to have a protective lane on climate change, because there’s too much urgency.”
This worked in 2014, when Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping made a siloed deal on cutting emissions. But with the U.S. planning to announce its new climate goals ahead of hosting an April 22-23 summit for major emitters, time is running out for a repeat of that approach.
“It’s unclear whether the Biden administration intends to trade issues off of each other, or to keep separate lanes for separate issues,” said Sims Gallagher.
Although together China, the EU and the U.S. account for more than half of global carbon emissions, any climate alliance will have to rope in more members. Nudging countries to greater efforts requires big emitters like India, Japan, Australia, Brazil or Indonesia to hear the same mix of encouragement, enticement and veiled threats.
That takes a united front, which is what Kerry is in Europe to build.
He met with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and organizers of the COP26 climate talks in London on Monday. The job ahead of the Glasgow talks is to “rally all countries, and most especially the world’s major economies” to raise their climate goals, Kerry said in a joint statement with Alok Sharma, the U.K. minister who will lead the global climate talks.
On Wednesday, Kerry travels to Paris.
His tour so far has been a protocol blurring affair. He described his meeting with Johnson as a “surprise,” as if the prime minister just happened to be rattling around the foreign office on a quiet Monday. Beyond his natural counterpart in Sharma, Kerry also held talks in London with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the foreign and business secretaries.
The same protocol bending happened in Brussels, where Kerry met with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — Timmermans at his side as a constant chaperone. He also attended a meeting of the College of Commissioners.
“That tells me,” said Tollman, “they don’t just want to set up the Timmermans-Kerry relationship.” With climate change policy reaching into every aspect of the economy, it “requires links into the other commissioners as well.”
“Everybody in the College is really thrilled to be able to have an exchange with him,” said Timmermans. “You know we said when the Biden administration took office: ‘They are back. They are back in Paris. They are back in the climate agenda.’ This is the best proof that this is the case.”
“The science is screaming at us,” Kerry said, explaining why he and his “good friend” Timmermans were pressing for the biggest emitters to move now. “This decade must be the decade of action.”
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