China and US had a “very good year” for collaboration on dealing with climate change but Washington is still pushing Beijing to adopt more ambitious carbon reduction goals, the top US diplomat in China said.
David Meale, the American Embassy's No. 2 official, said what China does on burning coal will be crucial to whether the world can meet its target of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, as set by the 2015 Paris climate accord.
China, the world's largest energy consumer and biggest producer and consumer of coal, emits 27% of the world's carbon dioxide, the most of any country.
So far, however, China has shown no intention of moving up its timeline to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 -- 10 years later than many nations -- and for carbon emissions to peak by 2030 or before, said Meale, the embassy's chargé d'affaires.
The Senate has yet to approve President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Beijing, former senior State Department official Nicholas Burns.
“It has been a very good year for our collaboration," Meale said, citing the close relationship and regular communication between climate envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua.
China has at times appeared to indicate it would tie cooperation on climate change to other issues between the countries. However, Meale cited the US-China deal to work harder together to cut emissions this decade, reached last month at COP26 in Glasgow, as an indication of China's willingness to engage.
“This is a very positive outcome and one we plan to build on in our bilateral engagement going forward and ... get to a place where things are speeded up, where the numbers look better," he said.
While Washington and Beijing have many areas of disagreement, “this is one area where we are cooperating and cooperating very productively,” Meale said.
Meale spoke to reporters at a briefing on Friday but his comments were embargoed until Monday.
While “no country is where we need to be" on carbon reduction, China plays an outsize role because of its heavy dependence on coal, Meale said.
“The 1.5 Celsius goal that the world is working toward is in danger and if we're going to get where we need to go, we're going to have to keep raising our ambition, keep taking new steps and nowhere is that going to be more important than in what China does," he said.
"So there is an extraordinary need for engagement, exchange of expertise, collaborative thinking to ask ourselves, how can China step up its ambition and step up its timeline so that we can rescue the 1.5 goal,” Meale said.
China's actions will “hopefully give confidence to other countries about where the world is going on the climate change question, will also inspire them raise their own ambition," he said.
In an address this year to the United Nations, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said China would not build new coal-fired plants overseas. Bu it appears China will proceed with those plants for which it has already signed contracts, and it remains unclear whether Chinese banks will continue to finance such projects in future, U.S. diplomats said.
Xi's pledge had no effect on domestic developments and China has continued to build coal-fired plants within the country at a rapid pace. With the growing use of solar and wind power, China has slightly cut its dependence on coal as a proportion of energy production from more than 70% to around 57%.
China has also ramped up coal production in recent months to ensure a steady supply for winter heating, something Meale called a “challenging short-term development."
“What it is bringing focus to is one of the fundamental challenges of transitioning away from hydrocarbons (for which) we need effective transition plans and actions," he said.
Decades of rapid economic growth have dramatically expanded China's energy needs. However, Meale said the U.S. has already shown that a country can continue to grow its economy while reducing emissions.
“We're all going to have to look at the tradeoffs and the transitions and how to get those right. That is absolutely true of the United States. It brings up difficult political issues and it brings up difficult questions of science," he said.
Xi's absence from the Glasgow talks drew criticism from President Joe Biden and questions about China's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Xi has not left China in almost two years.