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Chatham House Research Director Bernice Lee discusses U.S.-China climate talks

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Just like the U.S., China is enduring a summer of record-setting heat waves. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is in Beijing this week to try and find ways for the world's largest economies - and polluters - to put aside differences and come together on climate change. He spelled out his goals for the talks during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: What we're trying to achieve now is really to establish some stability, if we can, in the relationship, without conceding anything. There's no concession. I'm not going over with any concessions. What we're trying to do is find ways we can cooperate to actually address the crisis.

MARTÍNEZ: And this morning, Kerry relayed that message from the Biden administration to China's top diplomat. For more on what these talks might achieve, we turn to Bernice Lee. She's the Hoffmann distinguished fellow for sustainability at Chatham House in London. Now, the U.S. and China broke down their climate talks last year, Bernice, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. So what is on or off the table for Kerry's talks in Beijing?

BERNICE LEE: Well, at the moment, it is important to remind ourselves that it is actually good that they are talking again and setting a diplomatic track for climate change action again. So what is on the table, of course, are things that the two sides have in mind. On the Chinese side, I understand that they're obviously interested in talking about delivery, what they have done so far. The U.S. side, they obviously want to talk about how to make sure that both sides can do more together because as you know - but neither side, as Kerry just said and we just heard, can be seen to be conceding to each other. So being able to move separately together or leading separately together is the only way forward.

MARTÍNEZ: And is it legitimate to say that China has done a lot on climate change? They've spent a lot on renewable energy. They produce a lot of solar panels. They - thing is, though, they also burn a lot of coal, too. So do those two things kind of invalidate China's claim that they've done a lot?

LEE: Well, I think the reality is that energy security has been on everyone's mind, especially since the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. At the same time, it is true that China is burning more coal, and it is indeed important that they are going to begin to really phase that down, as well. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that they also have been overachieving utterly on renewable energy. I think they've achieved their target for 2030 by 2025 already - lots of stuff on efficiency, energy demand reduction. So in some sense, it's a double-edged sword for many countries because obviously energy transition doesn't take, you know, one day. It is long-term stuff. But at the same time, the strong progress in China on renewable energy, just as there have been excellent progress in the U.S. last year with your shock and awe legislative package, the Inflation Reduction Act - so in some sense, both sides are moving forward. So there are indeed good things to be building on if the two sides can find a way to work together, leading together separately.

MARTÍNEZ: So then what are those things because, I mean, they do have differences? Taiwan, the war in Ukraine - they're not small differences, but they're there. So what do Beijing and Washington need to do to find that common ground?

LEE: In terms of the climate talks, the things that are on the table we know are about coal phase-down, more renewable energy, methane reduction as well as forest and finance. At the same time, it is important that the two sides can get talking so that they have a program of work that can actually get them onto the right track because right now, not having talked for a long time, it's probably harder to imagine how to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But at the same time, we know that we've seen before, when they put their mind to it, there are things they can work together on, whether it is about carbon capture and storage, whether it's about developing potentially longer-term technology standards.

I mean, you know, look, at the moment, it is harder to imagine how can the world work together in the way that we did before, but at the same time, moving forward together would mean making sure that we have systems that are parallel and can actually - not just parallel, but can work together, as well, whether it is about technology and other issues. So I think on a policy level, as well, many things they can work on, including, for example, longer-term governance around geoengineering in the longer term about how do we have just transition to make sure the energy transition is also socially, not just environmentally, sound. These are all the things that they could be talking about, in addition to methane, coal reduction, forest and finance, all the stuff that is already on the agenda.

MARTÍNEZ: Bernice, just a few seconds left. We just heard John Kerry say that he's not heading over there with any concessions. But what's the one thing - the one thing - that he could bring back to the U.S. to consider this visit a success?

LEE: I mean, look, I mean, in the dependencies, I mean, obviously everyone - no one has real leverage, so being able to work together - the one thing he could bring back is to say that we're back on track for stronger climate action all around. And I think that having - being able to say that they're talking again and therefore moving in the right direction is the one important thing he can bring back. So I'm hoping very much that by the end of the day we will hear that they will have some other progress, as well, even though at the moment, the expectation is that it's likely that it will be a very important, solid start to another large program of right down the line (ph).

MARTÍNEZ: Bernice Lee is a climate and energy expert at Chatham House in London. Bernice, thanks.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.