John Kerry, the Biden administration’s top climate official, joined a virtual meeting on climate change co-hosted by China on Tuesday but had “no plans” to meet with his Chinese counterpart during the event, a US State Department representative said.
The meeting – an annual “Ministerial on Climate Action”, in which high-level officials discuss their implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement – comes just days after top diplomats from Washington and Beijing met for the first time, in Alaska, verbally sparring in front of cameras over a range of issues from human rights to trade policy to proper diplomatic protocol.
By the end of their meeting, though, and behind closed doors, the two countries had agreed to form a “joint working group” on climate change. It was the latest sign that President Joe Biden and his team have not given up on the possibility of collaborating with Beijing on climate issues, even as tensions soar in almost every other aspect of the relationship.
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Before Tuesday’s meeting, there was speculation that Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, might speak privately on the sidelines of the virtual meeting, but the State Department said that would not happen.
“Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has been in touch with his counterpart, Minister Xie Zhenhua, since they were both appointed, and we expect conversations between the two will continue, given that China is the largest emitter in the world,” the State Department representative said, adding: “We know the climate challenge does not get successfully addressed without significant additional action by China.”
The virtual ministerial session was organized by China, the European Union and Canada, and representatives of more than 30 countries were invited.
Biden has kept in place many of former president Donald Trump’s hardline policies towards China since taking office on January 20, but has taken a radically different approach to dealing with climate change, which Trump on many occasions refused to admit was real. On Biden’s first day in the White House, he signed an executive order to re-join the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which Trump had left.
But amid rapidly worsening relations with Beijing, Biden and Kerry have faced pressure from some lawmakers nervous that they might try to strike a deal that trades Chinese cooperation on climate issues for US acquiescence on other issues, such as human rights. Kerry has rejected the idea that that would happen.
“Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen,” he said in January. “But climate is a critical, stand-alone issue.”
Kerry helped negotiate the Paris accords when he was secretary of state under president Barack Obama.
On Tuesday, Kerry said the world needed to cooperate in the fight against climate change.
“This should not be a year to wring our hands and point fingers,” he said, according to prepared remarks. “This must be the year to point the way to a cleaner future and to join hands in a cooperative journey to get there – for all of us and all our people.”
More from South China Morning Post:
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- Alaska summit: US and Chinese officials clash, but who’s at the table?
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