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Kerry urges China to cut emissions faster, as Beijing seeks easing of solar sanctions

John F. Kerry speaks during a media briefing at the White House in April. The U.S. climate envoy wrapped up talks with Chinese officials that yielded no major breakthroughs. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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SEOUL — U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry said Friday he hopes Beijing will agree to cut carbon emissions faster to address the climate crisis, as he wrapped up talks in which Chinese officials pressed for American concessions in other areas that have strained relations.

Kerry said in a telephone interview from an airport in South Korea that Chinese officials are finalizing a “comprehensive” plan for curbing emissions in the country, even as Beijing pushed for the United States to lift sanctions on solar panel makers in exchange for greater cooperation on climate change.

“We made some progress. That’s the bottom line,” he said after several days of meetings in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. “In diplomacy, you don’t always get everything you want in one fell swoop.”

Rescue efforts launched after record floods in central China displace 1.2 million

There was no immediate indication that Beijing would agree to speed up its timeline for reducing emissions. China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, followed by the United States, and Kerry has been hoping to get Beijing’s cooperation ahead of a United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

Instead, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanded that Washington first address its “two lists” — a sprawling account of grievances that included sanctions on Chinese officials and U.S. extradition efforts against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou — according to a summary published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

Kerry said Chinese officials didn’t press Meng’s case to him specifically, but they did protest U.S. sanctions on Chinese solar panels. The Biden administration adopted the import ban in June, citing risk of forced labor among industry workers in the Xinjiang region. China’s government has denied forced labor is involved in the industry and said the sanctions hinder its ability to meet climate targets.

“They see that as a contradiction,” Kerry said.

Kerry said he is holding out hope that Beijing would take on board U.S. requests as it finalizes its “1+N” emissions control plan, which Beijing has said would guide disparate industries toward China’s overall target of reaching peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

Chinese greenhouse gas emissions now larger than those of developed countries combined

Kerry and others have called on China to adopt a faster timeline, saying that without dramatic reductions by the country, it will be essentially impossible to meet the most ambitious aim of the Paris accord, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We talked about the need to raise ambition and we talked about how some of those things could occur,” Kerry said. “But China will make its own decisions about which ones it wants to do.”

The urgency has intensified ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, which Kerry has called the last chance for the world to avoid climate disaster.

“Are we where we have to be? No,” Kerry said. “We’re still behind. We still have to accelerate, all of us.”

The talks are complicated by tense U.S.-China relations that began under President Donald Trump and have continued under President Biden. The two countries continue to be in conflict over China’s trade practices and human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which have overshadowed many other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

Deadly floods in Zhengzhou this summer have brought the catastrophic effects of climate change home to China, even as many Americans came to a similar realization by intense wildfires on the West Coast. Both countries’ governments know they must curb emissions for their own people’s welfare, but what share of the cost is borne by each remains under negotiation.

Kerry said there was a brief discussion during his meetings of the Zhengzhou floods.

“I certainly referred to it as one of the indicators that makes it more personal to China,” he said.

As he continues to seek China’s help on climate change, Kerry kept his comments upbeat on Friday about the talks in Tianjin, as well as China’s leader Xi Jinping.

“President Xi has been driving the climate agenda in China,” Kerry said. “He is very aware of every step we have been taking together, and I think it’s been a constructive process.”

Lily Kuo in Taipei, Taiwan; Brady Dennis in Washington and Lyric Li contributed to this report.

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