SHANGHAI (AFP, REUTERS) - Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi has warned the United States that political tension between Beijing and Washington could undermine efforts by the world's top two sources of greenhouse gases to cooperate in the fight against climate change.
The US, which has resumed its role in global climate diplomacy after a four-year hiatus under president Donald Trump, has long hoped to keep climate issues separate from its disputes with China on issues such as trade, human rights and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
China's State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang told US climate envoy John Kerry that the US saw the two sides' joint efforts against global warming as an "oasis", the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"But surrounding the oasis is a desert, and the oasis could be desertified very soon," he said, speaking by video link on Wednesday (Sept 1). "China-US climate cooperation cannot be separated from the wider environment of China-US relations."
Mr Kerry said he had urged Chinese leaders to reach for the "highest ambition" in order to curb temperature rises, saying the climate crisis was not about politics.
"My response to them was, look, climate is not ideological, not partisan, and not a geostrategic weapon," Mr Kerry told reporters on Thursday during a conference call following two days of talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, in the northern city of Tianjin.
He said that while China was doing a lot to tackle rising levels of greenhouse gases, it was now emitting more than the whole of the OECD, and "can do more".
China, by far the world's biggest source of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas, has pledged to bring emissions to a peak by the end of the decade and to net zero by 2060. Burning coal is the single largest source of mankind's CO2 and China is the world's top coal producer and consumer.
But it will only start cutting coal consumption after 2026 and it is still approving new projects at home and financing them overseas.
Mr Kerry said Beijing's coal building spree could "undo" global capacity to meet climate targets.
He said the United States has made it "clear that the addition of more coal plants represents a significant challenge to the efforts of the world to deal with the climate crisis".
China brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power generation into operation last year - more than three times what was brought on line globally.
Climate watchers hope the talks will bring more ambitious pledges from both countries to fight greenhouse gas emissions.
Though Mr Wang warned that climate change could now be tied to other diplomatic issues, China has said its efforts to cut emissions and adopt cleaner forms of energy are vital to its ambitious domestic agenda.
"Chinese leaders have long said they are engaged in climate action not because of outside pressure, but because it benefits China and the world at large," said Dr Alex Wang, a climate expert and professor at UCLA.
"If that is so, then US-China tensions should not slow Chinese climate action."