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US and EU search for China strategy after being snubbed


The first European trip by US climate envoy John Kerry sparks a joint effort to get China to cut its emissions.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Ursula von der Leyen and Frans Timmermans | Olivier Hoslet/AFP via Getty Images

“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?” […]

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.

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