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Meet the Men Now Spearheading China-US Climate Diplomacy

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Meet the Men Now Spearheading China-US Climate Diplomacy

What does the reshuffle of their respective climate envoys mean for the future of China-U.S. climate engagement?

Meet the Men Now Spearheading China-US Climate Diplomacy

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) talks with Senior Adviser for Clean Energy Innovation John Podesta aboard Air Force One en route to West Colombia, South Carolina, July 6, 2023.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Following COP28, the U.N. climate conference in Abu Dhabi last year, China and the United States both announced the retirement of their climate envoys, Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry, respectively. This marks the end of an era led by prominent climate diplomats representing two of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. Their successors, Liu Zhenmin on the Chinese side and John Podesta on the U.S. side, are not as well-known as their predecessors, but bring unique backgrounds that herald a new chapter in China-U.S. communication and cooperation in climate change. 

Xie Zhenhua, China’s former climate envoy, spent his entire career immersed in environmental protection policy before taking on the role of China’s chief climate negotiator. Liu Zhenmin, his successor, has a markedly different background. His career began as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1982 after receiving a college degree in international relations and law. 

Liu’s foray into climate issues commenced with his appointment as China’s representative to the United Nations, where he played a key role in China’s early negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. In 2015, Liu became deputy chief of China’s delegation to COP21, working alongside Xie. By 2017, Liu had risen to the prominent U.N. position of under-secretary-general overseeing economic and social affairs, further expanding his exposure to the nexus of climate issues and geopolitics. 

As China’s new special envoy for climate change, Liu’s background in foreign affairs and climate negotiation reflects the strategic considerations behind his appointment. China’s leaders want to better integrate climate policy and foreign policy in an era where climate change and geopolitics are increasingly entangled. Not only is China the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but it is also emerging as a competitive producer of low-carbon technologies and products like electric vehicle (EV) batteries and solar panels. 

While China is becoming increasingly important in global efforts to combat the impacts of climate change, many developed countries in the West see China as a revisionist power that seeks to reshape the current international order. This perception creates a delicate balance for these countries trying to defend national security interests against perceived threats from China, while cooperating on global issues that transcend borders, such as climate change. The tension between these objectives has led to escalating trade frictions and efforts to decouple from China in clean technology supply chains, which could raise the costs of climate transition, and slow the diffusion of clean technologies, jeopardizing the world’s decarbonization efforts.

The past year has also illustrated how wars and conflicts divert essential financial and physical resources away from the climate agenda. With substantial investments being redirected toward defense and military engagements in regions such as Israel and Ukraine, there is potentially less capacity to fund and accelerate the shift toward a climate-resilient world. Geopolitics and foreign policy are both shaping and being shaped by climate change. 

Liu Zhenmin seems to be well-suited to address these challenges as China’s top climate diplomat. His career has given him a nuanced understanding of the intricate relationship between climate change and geopolitics.

However, it is no secret that the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) in China, where Liu’s predecessor Xie built his career, sees climate change through a different lens than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), where Liu spent much of his professional life. Compared to the MEE, the MFA traditionally views climate change more as a lever in China’s overall diplomatic strategy, rather than a critical, standalone issue to address. This difference raises questions about the extent to which Liu shares the MFA’s more strategic view of climate change and whether his approach to climate negotiations will mirror the focused dedication that Xie brought to the table. 

The ambiguity surrounding Liu’s commitment to climate action for its own sake adds an element of uncertainty to how China’s climate diplomacy will evolve under his tenure. That said, given China’s centralization of the decision-making process with Xi Jinping himself, Liu’s personal influence on China’s climate diplomacy may also be limited.

On the other side of the globe, John Podesta’s appointment as the new U.S. special climate envoy also brings fresh dynamic to the role. Unlike his predecessor John Kerry, who has had a prominent public service career as a former senator and secretary of state, Podesta has exerted influence more within the Democratic inner circles of Washington, D.C., having served in the White House under Democratic administrations since Clinton. 

During the Obama years, he played a key role in working to advance clean energy and climate policy, while also defending the administration’s position on natural gas exports. More recently, as a climate adviser in the Biden administration, Podesta was instrumental in the rollout of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a cornerstone of the administration’s climate strategy. This background demonstrates Podesta’s deep understanding of and pragmatic approach to U.S. domestic climate policy, as well as the high level of trust the Biden administration places in him. 

Podesta’s close ties to the Biden administration and experience in climate policy stand in stark contrast to his Chinese counterpart, whose direct connections to the top Chinese leadership and domestic climate policy experience remain less clear. But Podesta’s appointment comes with its own set of challenges. In the wake of COP28, calls for the United States to enhance its contribution to global climate action have grown louder. This includes not only meeting existing climate finance commitments to developing countries, but also setting ambitious new goals such as reducing domestic fossil fuel consumption and exports. 

However, Podesta’s new appointment is complicated by the fact that he now manages both domestic and international climate affairs. For example, many U.S. allies have expressed dissatisfaction with IRA subsidies that benefit U.S. consumers and cleantech companies, a law he oversaw during the Biden administration. Reaching consensus and compromising under pressure from domestic interest groups and international partners will be an important aspect of his role as U.S. climate envoy in advancing the U.S. climate agenda on both fronts.

Looking ahead, Podesta and Liu are stepping into their roles amid a more favorable public opinion environment than their predecessors enjoyed. China has made significant strides in the green economy, which became the major engine of its economic growth in 2023. Meanwhile, the United States has rolled back the Trump administration’s climate denialism and isolationism, reasserting its role in international climate efforts. Notably, the two largest global emitters have found common ground on climate collaboration, reaching an unprecedented level of consensus on joint actions despite ongoing strain in other areas of their bilateral relationship. 

The new envoys are also tasked with nurturing the personal connections previously established by Xie and Kerry. Their mutual respect and personal rapport, built over 25 years of dialogue and collaboration, have brought fruitful dividends to past climate diplomatic successes, offering a glimmer of hope for stability amid unabated geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers. The backgrounds of Podesta and Liu suggest that they are well-positioned to carry forward this legacy of close personal diplomacy. 

Liu’s fluency in English and extensive diplomatic experience at the United Nations hold promise for establishing trusting relationships with international partners. As for Podesta, he participated in China-U.S. track II dialogues and developed productive working relationships with Chinese officials during his tenure as the founding president of the think tank Center for American Progress as well as his time at the White House. All of these factors can serve as common ground for strengthening exchanges between the two sides. Moreover, Podesta’s openness for Chinese company participation in the U.S. climate transition – despite opposition from Republican hardliners – signals opportunities for collaboration that could pave the way for new joint climate initiatives between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters.

The true test for Podesta and Liu will be their ability to navigate evolving geopolitical challenges while sustaining the momentum of climate diplomacy. As the 2024 U.S. elections draw near, the threat of China will remain a hotbed of political debates in the United States. The ongoing tensions surrounding Taiwan, human rights, and trade conflicts could also upset the delicate balance of bilateral relations and limit the opportunities for climate negotiation and cooperation. 

The tenures of Podesta and Liu will be closely watched around the world, as they take office at a time when the interplay between geopolitics and climate change is more pronounced than ever. This is a period that will determine whether the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases will be able to put aside their political differences and work together to address a common existential threat.