US climate chief rails at Asian coal as geopolitical tensions shadow UN summit

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US climate envoy John Kerry has railed at new coal production in Asia that “wipes out” carbon emissions reductions from Europe and the US, the largest historical polluters, as geopolitical tensions remain high following the UN climate summit in New York.

While country negotiators attempt to hammer out preliminary agreements to be discussed at the UN COP28 climate summit in Dubai in 10 weeks, a visibly frustrated Kerry told ministers at a breakfast meeting that he felt “increasing anger” over “what is going on, and what is not going on”.

“What infuriates me, frankly, and I find myself getting more and more angry about this — but we are not stopping at a broad enough scale the contributions to the problem, and by that I mean emissions are going up,” Kerry told the ministers from assembled nations. “People continue to plan and build and burn unmitigated, unabated fossil fuel.”

Kerry said the scale of coal power expansion planned in Asia would make it “impossible to achieve 1.5 degrees” in global temperature rise since pre-industrial times, set down under the Paris accord as the ideal limit. The world has already warmed by at least 1.1C.

The former US secretary of state also lashed out at “fundamental, basic greed” from companies. “I keep hearing from certain corporations ‘well, shareholders are demanding this’, and despite all of the consequences we are not yet doing what we said we would do.”

Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, formally reignited bilateral climate talks between the US and China earlier this summer. Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged in 2020 that China would reach peak emissions by 2030 and be “carbon-neutral” by 2060.

Solar and wind predicted to lead the renewables charge. Chart showing renewable capacity additions, including main and accelerated forecasts (GW). China will dominate the renewable landscape over the next five years, increasing capacity by more than the US and Europe combined. It also shows that solar and wind will be the main drivers of this surge.

While China is the world’s largest producer of renewable energy capacity and dominates solar and wind technology, it is also consuming record amounts of coal to meet its energy needs. International Energy Agency data shows that China and India set monthly records for coal energy production in March 2023 and burnt 70 per cent of the world’s coal.

In a coinciding speech to diplomats in China on Thursday, Zhenhua said it was “not realistic to phase out all fossil fuels”. However, he added that carbon capture technology could be used to lower the emissions when fossil fuels are burnt. The technology is not proven at scale, although China is attempting its own development at various oilfields.

China has consistently frustrated discussions at multilateral meetings of major developed economies seeking to achieve consensus on ending the reliance on fossil fuels, including at recent G7 and G20 leader meetings.

At COP28, negotiators from almost 200 countries, including the US and China, will need to co-operate to reach agreements on the so-called global stocktake on emissions, the first since the Paris accord in 2015, and seal arrangements for a fund for loss and damage related to climate change.

Some negotiators are hoping to include wording and a timeline for the end of fossil fuels, and upgraded targets for beyond 2030 in the final COP28 agreement, despite the significant pushback from petrostates and fossil fuel producers.

Additional reporting by Alice Hancock

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