China Briefing, 16 September 2021: Xi and Biden discuss climate; Johnson’s ‘last-ditch’ talks with Xi; Advice for China’s carbon goals

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We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

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Snapshot

Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Joe Biden talked about climate change last week in their first call in seven months. The conversation came just a week after John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate, concluded his trip to Tianjin for a new round of climate diplomacy with his Chinese counterpart and senior officials.

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Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson is planning “last-ditch” climate talks with Xi in the hope of “breaking the global impasse on climate action” ahead of COP26, the Guardian reported. Just last week, Alok Sharma, president-designate for COP26, was in China for meetings to ensure a successful outcome of the climate summit.

Elsewhere, an advisory body chaired by China’s vice-premier has advised China to impose an absolute cap on its carbon emissions during the 2021 to 2025 period to help meet its climate targets, Reuters reported. China currently uses emission intensity – the volume of emissions per unit of GDP – in its targets for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Key developments

Xi and Biden discuss climate change during call

WHAT: Xi and Biden talked about climate change on the phone last week in their first conversation since February. Xi “elaborated on” China’s position on climate change and other key issues to Biden, a transcript from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. A readout of the call from the White House did not specify climate change as a topic. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki told journalists that “climate…as well as a number of topics were discussed”, adding “the COP summit [COP26] is the next big moment for the international community on that front”. The call lasted “about 90 minutes”, Psaki said.

WHEN: The Xi-Biden call took place last Friday Beijing time (Thursday US time). It came a week after Biden’s climate envoy, Kerry, finished his three-day visit to Tianjin, during which he met with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and a range of senior officials. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, told Kerry that it would be “impossible” to separate climate issues from overall China-US ties – a direction the Biden administration had sought. The two sides reportedly “failed to reach agreement“. (Read more about Kerry’s visit in this China Briefing from earlier this month). 

Xi’S MESSAGES: On the topic of climate change, Xi “stressed that China continues to prioritise ecological conservation and pursues a green and low-carbon path to development”, according to the Chinese transcript. Xi also said, “[o]n the basis of respecting each other’s core concerns and properly managing differences”, the two countries “may continue their engagement and dialogue to advance coordination and cooperation” on climate change and other important issues, the transcript showed.

STATE MEDIA: A comment piece from China News Service underlined that Xi had “provided answers” to “the question of the century” that is Sino-China relationship. It highlighted that climate change must not be treated as a standalone issue. Xinhua Daily Telegraph reported that there were “three keywords” from the call. One of them was “respect” as it was the “basic precondition” of any potential China-US collaboration, it said. Global Times reported that, according to “analysis”, China and the US “will likely have substantive discussion” over issues including the climate. It added: “But [as to] whether or not a consensus will be reached, the key will depend on if the US touches the ‘three bottom lines’ China has raised previously.” (The “three bottom lines” are “three basic demands” China has given to the US to push forward their relations. This release from the Chinese foreign ministry has explained what they are.)

US COVERAGE: The New York Times reported that the Biden administration’s officials had given “remarkably few details from the call”. But it said that Biden emphasised “the need to mitigate climate change” to Xi, citing “officials”. Los Angeles Times wrote: “The White House is hopeful the two sides can work together on issues of mutual concern – including climate change and preventing a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula – despite growing differences”. CNBC, CNN and the Washington Post reported that Xi named climate change to Biden as one of the areas of possible cooperation. All three outlets cited Chinese state media. Bloomberg said that Biden urged Xi “to make a distinction between issues for cooperation like climate change and those for competition like human rights and trade”.

WHY IT MATTERS: “Every solution to climate change goes through Washington and Beijing. Without either country’s substantial commitment, we are not going to reach our global climate targets,” Michael Davidson, an assistant professor in the School of Global Policy and Strategy and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of California, San Diego, told Carbon Brief. He said that due to ongoing political tensions, “we should not expect an immediate return [of the two countries’ relations] to the more cooperative approaches between Obama and Xi, even on climate change”. But he added: “I still remain hopeful that with softer rhetoric from both sides, traditional areas of climate change cooperation will be rekindled…and enhanced, high-level exchanges on cleantech trade and confidence-building measures on the credibility of each other’s long-term commitments can take place.”

Johnson plans ‘last-ditch’ climate talks with Xi, report says

WHAT: Boris Johnson “is planning to convene last-ditch climate talks” with Xi at “a crunch meeting of world leaders” next week, the Guardian reported in an “exclusive” last Friday. Xi will be invited to the meeting on the sidelines of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA76), according to the newspaper. At last year’s UN General Assembly, Xi pledged that China would achieve “carbon neutrality” before 2060. 

WHEN: The Guardian said that the meeting would take place on 20 September in the hope of “breaking the global impasse on climate action” ahead of COP26. It noted that the meeting would be attended by leaders from around 30 countries and co-hosted by António Guterres, the UN secretary general. Guterres told journalists last Friday: “[O]ne of the reasons I’m convening…a summit…is exactly to make an effort to build trust…before COP26.” 

UNGA76: Bernice Lee, research director at Chatham House, a London-based thinktank focused on international affairs, told Carbon Brief: “President Xi made an important announcement last year during UNGA, which provided a much-needed boost to global climate diplomacy. This is why we should watch [this year’s assembly] to see if he would use the occasion to make another groundbreaking announcement ahead of G20 and COP26.” (Xi has not left China for the assembly, as of writing. It remains unclear whether he would make a video speech.) Lee added: “Even though it is not clear [if] China will amend the 30/60 target in the short term, we will likely hear more policy detail, the meat on the bone, in terms of how China intends to implement the 30/60 commitment in the coming weeks before COP26.’ 

WHO: Johnson has personally invited Xi to come to COP26, according to a previous report. Bloomberg reported last Thursday that Xi – who has not left China for more than 600 days – had not confirmed his attendance, citing a “senior European diplomat”. Last Wednesday, a UK government spokeswoman said that COP26’s Covid-secure efforts “create space that Xi Jinping could come”, adding that “we will find out shortly”.

WHY IT MATTERS: “China’s attendance and pro-active and ambitious engagement” would be one of the biggest determinants of a successful COP26, according to an article from the British Foreign Policy Group, a London-based thinktank. Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, expressed similar opinions. She told the Guardian that China was crucial to hopes of success at COP26. At the end of his China visit, Sharma also said that “the choices that China makes, on their energy mix, and on coal specifically, will shape our shared future”. However, Reuters reported that China’s tough stance during recent climate talks with the US and UK “may undermine progress” at the Glasgow summit, according to experts. Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia, told the newswire: “Amid all the uncertainties, one thing has become clear – Beijing will not give in to foreign powers.”

Other news

ABSOLUTE CAP: The China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a government-approved advisory body, said that China needed to establish mechanisms to control absolute emission levels and impose caps on individual provinces and industries, according to Reuters. CCICED is chaired by Han Zheng, China’s vice-premier, according to its website. The advice was among a list of recommendations published by the organisation last Thursday, Reuters added.

OVERSEAS COAL: A research report suggested that China’s Belt and Road Initiative should put coal-mining projects and coal-fired power plants on an “elimination list” and “gradually stop such overseas investment projects”. The report was published by a forum run by CCICED last Wednesday. Southern Metropolis Daily, a subsidiary of the state-run Nanfang Daily Newspaper Group, reported the story. It came as reports said E3G, a climate change thinktank, and “​​an alliance of 35 non-governmental organisations” had also urged Chinese authorities to stop financing cross-border coal projects. 

XI: The Chinese president inspected a state-owned chemical company in Yulin, a city in the northern province of Shaanxi, to learn about the “comprehensive utilisation of coal” on Monday morning. He instructed officials and workers that the energy industry “must continue to develop” to “support the country’s modernisation”. Xi directed them to “transform and upgrade” its coal and energy development “to walk the green, low-carbon developmental path”. Xinhua reported the story. CCTV aired a clip of Xi’s speech.

PANDA POWER: A sprawling “panda-shaped” solar plant in Shanxi province can now generate enough electricity for more than 100,000 people for a year, Xinhua reported. The calculation is based on China’s per-capita electricity consumption last year, which was 780 kilowatt hours, the state newswire said. The plant’s solar panels are carefully arranged to show the image of two giant pandas while viewed from above.

EXTREME WEATHER: A paper has assessed the relationship between the roofs of traditional Chinese architecture and extreme snow events over the past 1,000 years. The study analysed preserved roofs built during 750 and 1750 and compared the results with weather data from the same millennium. They found that in periods with increased extreme snow events, steeper roofs were built, while warmer eras led to more gently sloping roofs. The Conversation, China’s Science Times and Sixth Tone featured the study.

NEV: Both the production and sales of “new energy” vehicles (NEVs) tripled in China from January to August this year, compared to the same period last year. The two figures stood at 1,813,000 and 1,799,000, in order. Xiao Yaqing, the minister of industry and information technology, gave the information at a press conference on Monday. In the first eight months of 2020, 602,000 and 596,000 NEVs were produced and sold, respectively, in the country. 

PRICE SURGE: The thermal coal price is “nearing a record high” due to “surging demand” in China and India, Nikkei Asia reported. The Japan-based outlet said that the spike in demand “collides with a reluctance to invest in new capacity”. The news came after a Chinese province reopened dozens of mines – ​​which had been ordered to halt their operation due to land-use violations – to boost coal production and cool coal prices. China Briefing from 26 August explained more.

POLICY: Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy on climate, introduced the ideas and content of the country’s upcoming top-level climate action plan for the first time at a forum on Saturday, reported Yicai. The plan, known as the “1+N” policy system, will use emissions reduction as its “strategic direction” to promote “a synergy of pollution reduction and carbon reduction” and “a comprehensive green transformation of economic and social development”, Xie said, according to the report. 

Extra reading

New science

Growing threats from unprecedented sequential flood-hot extremes across China
Geophysical Research Letters

A new study has found that sequential “flood-hot” extremes will become more likely in China as the climate warms. The study added that “historically unprecedented sequential extremes could originate from a sequence of relatively moderate floods and hot extremes in the same week”. Dr Chen Yang from the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences is the corresponding author of the paper. He told Carbon Brief: “In the past, these two types of extremes have been extensively investigated individually. As the climate warms, however, they could [collide] in an unexpected way.” He added: “So we need to foresee their potential connection, even coincidentally, in amplifying the associated hazards and risks and to better prepare for the future.”

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