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Farewell, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Xie. It marks the end of a significant era in global climate politics.
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Farewell, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Xie. It marks the end of a significant era in global climate politics.

As the conclusion of the Cop28 UN climate summit drew near in December, a significant meeting was absent from the official schedule. While numerous delegates gathered at the lavish Dubai venue, a discreet gathering in a secluded area recognized a momentous occasion. US presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, commemorated his 80th birthday, and his esteemed guest was Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, who turned 74.

The event was filled with warmth and a sense of family, with even Xie’s eight-year-old grandson in attendance. Xie and his “good old friend” Kerry were asked by the grandson why they were still working so diligently at their age. Xie replied, as recounted at a unique joint press conference between the US and China after the summit, that they all shared a strong passion for addressing climate change.

The two men, who have played crucial roles in climate negotiations before the 2015 Paris agreement, have now completed their arduous efforts. Initially Xie and more recently, Kerry, have both retired, leaving a significant impact on the international climate platform, which was largely shaped by their strong personal bond. Despite growing tensions between their nations, they successfully established a US-China partnership in addressing climate change, which has been vital in transforming the world economy. However, it has also posed a challenge in advancing climate initiatives.

China and the US are responsible for the majority of global carbon dioxide emissions, with China accounting for about 30% and the US for about 14%. Additionally, they are the largest producers of oil and gas in the world, making their actions crucial in determining the future of the planet. Historically, relations between the two countries have been tense, with the US viewing China as a formidable competitor and China strengthening its own influence through economic growth.

“The climate partnership between the US and China holds immense significance,” states Todd Stern, former US climate ambassador, who collaborated with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and later with John Kerry for the Paris agreement. “For quite some time, it has been the most crucial bilateral relationship in regards to the climate.”

Both nations have received both positive and negative feedback for their efforts in addressing climate change. China has been a leader in promoting environmentally friendly growth, investing heavily in areas such as wind energy, solar energy, and electric vehicles, which has resulted in significant cost reductions. They have also been praised for their support and assistance to developing countries. However, China remains heavily reliant on coal and has at times hindered progress, such as during the Durban UN Cop in 2011 when they resisted accepting the roadmap that eventually led to the Paris agreement. At Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021, they also pushed for a last-minute compromise, resulting in a weaker commitment to phase out coal.

Activists at the Eiffel Tower during Paris COP 2015

The United States has taken on a contradictory role by advocating for the 2015 Paris agreement and introducing a $369 billion investment in sustainable initiatives through the Inflation Reduction Act, while simultaneously increasing its oil and gas production to become the top global producer. Additionally, the US has not followed through on its pledge to provide necessary climate financing for developing nations, and has delayed in providing “loss and damage” funds that are crucial for the survival of the world’s most impoverished populations.

According to Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa thinktank, having a “grownup” in the role after Trump was positive. However, the US remains a major letdown when it comes to addressing climate change. Adow hopes that the new envoy can achieve more than Kerry, who strongly opposed the establishment of the loss and damage fund and often hindered progressive climate agreements.

Harjeet Singh, the director of global engagement for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, stated that both nations must take further action: “Their declarations of being climate leaders lack substance as they continue to invest in fossil fuels.”

However, the partnership between Xie and Kerry, which dates back over 25 years, has resulted in significant benefits for the climate negotiations. Despite a gap during Donald Trump’s presidency, both Kerry and Xie have remained committed and invested in addressing climate change. They have played leading roles in promoting cooperation between their countries in this area.

“Xie built a set of lasting partnerships with US officials that underpinned the relationship of the world’s largest economies, and saw them through good times and bad,” said Rachel Kyte, former World Bank climate chief and UN special representative. “Kerry is probably one of the few people in the US who could bring the Biden administration and the wider body politic together to do a deal with China, when so many others in Washington just saw danger everywhere.”

According to economist Lord Stern, the Paris agreement would not have been possible without the efforts of these two individuals. They were able to establish a strong sense of trust between their respective countries, which was crucial in achieving the agreement. As a result, stability and dedication were fostered.

Both individuals have demonstrated a profound comprehension of the pressing issue of climate change, as well as skill in maneuvering through conflicts and tensions in pursuit of climate action. Lord Stern also praised their kind and genuine personalities, noting their strong moral compass.

Their close personal relationship was often noticeable. During Cop28, the US and Chinese delegations were conveniently located near each other, with the US offices’ back entrance opening up to the Chinese pavilion. This allowed for an impromptu meeting between the two men at the start of the conference, much to their mutual enjoyment.

Although both men are determined and full of energy, they have been exhibiting exhaustion at recent climate conferences. Xie has been seen wearing sneakers due to his back issues and also faced a severe illness last year, the details of which were not disclosed. During the late stages of Cop27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Kerry contracted Covid and had to continue negotiations from his hotel room. However, he quickly returned to his demanding work schedule afterwards.

At a pivotal moment, they depart from the stage. The upcoming US presidential election holds great significance as Donald Trump once more poses a threat to US initiatives regarding the climate and other concerns. Additionally, China plays an equally crucial role. According to Bernice Lee of Chatham House, the nation is implementing significant amounts of low-carbon technology. Lee also noted that the Xi administration aims to establish a positive global image and sees climate issues as an opportunity to showcase its leadership.

Xie’s apparent successor is Liu Zhenmin, a top diplomat who views climate as a vital brief, while the Biden administration has yet to indicate who will replace Kerry. Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser now with American University’s Center for Environmental Policy, said the Kerry/Xie relationship should be the model for their governments, to act before it is too late.

The speaker expressed hope that future leaders will recognize that Kerry and Xie’s efforts only scratched the surface of reducing emissions and promoting climate cooperation between the two biggest economies in the world. They shared a common goal of preventing global instability and climate disaster.

Source: theguardian.com