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Analysis | 5 things to know about the suspension of U.S.-China climate talks


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5 things to know about the suspension of U.S.-China climate talks

The United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, are no longer talking about their mutual efforts to slow the Earth’s catastrophic warming.

Beijing halted climate cooperation with Washington on Aug. 5, as it announced a raft of measures in retaliation for the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan.

Experts on international climate diplomacy are still parsing the practical implications of the pause in talks, which comes less than 100 days before the next United Nations climate summit in Egypt.

Here are answers to five pressing questions about the move, according to those experts:

1. Is competition better than cooperation?

The short answer: It might be.

The long answer: While global cooperation on climate change is still imperative, a little healthy competition between the two superpowers might actually benefit the planet.

In particular, China is expected to double down on efforts to dominate the supply chain for electric vehicles, solar panels and other green technologies after President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which seeks to displace China as a key supplier of clean tech.

“If someone said to me, ‘You can have lots of interaction between the United States and China but no IRA, or you can have the IRA but less dialogue and collaboration, I would absolutely pick No. 2,” said Todd Stern, who led U.S. climate negotiations under President Barack Obama.

“The more China sees the U.S. charging in the direction of the clean energy transformation, the better that is,” Stern added.

2. Will John Kerry keep meeting with his Chinese counterpart?

The long answer: At the COP26 climate talks in Scotland last year, the U.S. and China issued a joint pledge to take “enhanced climate actions” to meet the more ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris agreement — limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Since then, U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry has held several virtual and in-person meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. The most recent in-person meetings occurred in Berlin in May and in Stockholm in June, according to a State Department spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Unless China changes its stance, the pair are not expected to meet again before the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November. However, Kerry’s team had not yet scheduled the next meeting when Beijing suspended the talks, so they did not have to cancel or change any plans, the spokesperson said.

3. Will China still slash its methane emissions?

The short answer: Probably.

The long answer: As part of their joint pledge last year, the United States and China agreed to slash their emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas whose climate-warming power is more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide during the first 20 years in the atmosphere.

However, China has not signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, a commitment by more than 100 nations to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030.

Still, Beijing has made clear that its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060 depends on cutting all greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide, said Joanna Lewis, a professor of energy and environment at Georgetown University.

“Methane is already very much on China’s domestic agenda,” Lewis said.

4. Will the United States and China still launch a climate working group?

The short answer: Probably not.

The long answer: During the Obama administration, the United States and China convened a working group on climate change that was made up of policymakers and technical experts.

Although the working group was disbanded under President Donald Trump, several experts had been lobbying to reincarnate it under Biden, including Thom Woodroofe, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat.

The suspension of talks “almost certainly means that the climate working group that was about to be launched will not be launched,” Woodroofe said.

5. What does this mean for COP27?

The short answer: It doesn’t bode well.

The long answer: COP27 is already set to occur against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has heightened geopolitical tensions and increased global energy prices. 

The pause in U.S.-China talks could make the summit even more fractious than experts already expected, said Li Shuo, a senior adviser at Greenpeace East Asia based in Beijing.

“Restoring U.S.-China climate exchanges ahead of COP27,” he said, “is a matter of urgency.”

Appalachian, Indigenous pipeline foes say climate deal ‘left us to burn’

While Democrats and many environmental groups celebrate the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, some Indigenous and Appalachian community members are protesting a side deal that would overhaul the nation’s process for approving new energy projects, The Washington Post’s Ellie Silverman reports. 

To secure the support of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Democratic leadership agreed to pursue separate legislation this fall to reform the permitting process for new energy infrastructure, including fossil fuel and clean energy projects. The measure would also seek to expedite the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport Appalachian shale gas about 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia.

The White House has said that disadvantaged communities were crucial in developing the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains a historic $60 billion investment in environmental justice and will help cut U.S. emissions 40 percent by 2030. But a group of Indigenous, Black and Appalachian community members are planning a rally in D.C. on Sept. 8 to protest the side deal, saying it comes at their expense.

“We’ve got to stand up. We’ve got to do something,” said Crystal Cavalier-Keck, an enrolled citizen of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in North Carolina who has been fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline for years.

Law could lower costs of climate effects by up to $1.9 trillion, OMB says

The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed into law this month, could lower the costs associated with planet-warming pollution by up to $1.9 trillion by 2050, according to an analysis published Tuesday by the White House Office of Management and Budget, Andrew Freedman reports for Axios. 

The analysis relied on three sets of modeling conducted by the energy research firm Rhodium Group, the climate think tank Energy Innovation and a group of Princeton University researchers. 

To study the bill’s potential impact after 2030, the OMB used the social cost of carbon, a key metric for assessing the harm caused by releasing 1 ton of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The OMB found that the law would contribute to savings in the form of less property damage from climate disasters, fewer negative health effects and lower energy costs.

Ancient deep-sea methane burst raises questions for our climate future

Methane stored deep in the seafloor off the coast of Africa broke free about 125,000 years ago after the ocean warmed by 12.2. degrees Fahrenheit during the Eemian period, according to research published Monday, leaving scientists scrambling to figure out what this could mean for our climate future, The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney reports

Several scientists who reviewed the study, which was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, said that they are not prepared to sound any major new alarms about the planet’s stores of subsea methane, but the finding underscores how little we know about how the Earth will react to global warming. 

If it reaches the atmosphere, methane currently stored in the ocean could cause tremendous warming, since methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years after it is released into the air. But it remains unclear whether the gas would be able to travel upward through the protective layer of the ocean, and whether the ancient event took place all over the world or only within the isolated area.

Five 1,000-year rain events have struck the U.S. in five weeks. Why?

In the past five weeks, five instances of 1,000-year rain events have inundated parts of the United States, creating a sense of whiplash for areas that have experienced the extreme flooding after being parched by prolonged drought conditions, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Post. 

The different precipitation extremes are linked to human-caused global warming, which has made the rare events more frequent and severe. For every degree Fahrenheit the planet warms, the air can hold roughly 4 percent more water, bringing higher humidity and heat indexes as well heavier instantaneous downpours. Meanwhile, droughts can also make flooding worse by killing plants, reducing soil absorption and hardening topsoil. 

Although the effects of a changing climate — such as a 2-millimeter rise in sea levels annually — may seem distant or far away, these extreme weather events make clear that global warming is influencing the conditions that many Americans regularly face.

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