U.S. Diplomat Urges China to Take on Larger Climate Stance by Halting Use of Coal

Despite what China calls a "very good year" for climate change collaboration with Washington, the U.S. is still urging Beijing to take stronger stances.

David Meale, the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, is encouraging the country to ditch coal as one of its main producers of energy. He told reporters that by doing this critical step, the country could help cap global warming emissions at 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

"The 1.5 Celsius goal that the world is working toward is in danger and if we're going to get where we need to go, we're going to have to keep raising our ambition, keep taking new steps and nowhere is that going to be more important than in what China does," said Meale.

There are signs that China could agree to this measure. Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the United Nations earlier this year pledging to stop building coal-fired plants overseas. However, plants whose contracts have already been signed will still be constructed. It remains unclear how China will plan to replace coal power if they agree to the U.S.' stance.

As for Meale, he has hope that China will stop burning coal as talks and collaborations continue. He said that the country's actions will "hopefully give confidence to other countries about where the world is going on the climate change question, will also inspire them raise their own ambition."

China is currently the largest energy consumer and the biggest producer and consumer of coal in the world. It emits 27 precent of the world's carbon dioxide.

Coal Power China
A top official in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said China can help meet the world meet its target of capping global warming by working to curb coal burning. This picture shows the coal-powered Datang International Zhangjiakou Power Station in Zhangjiakou, one of the host cities for the 2022 Winter Olympics, in China's northern Hebei province on November 15, 2021. Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

So far, however, China has shown no intention of moving up its timeline to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 — 10 years later than many nations — and for carbon emissions to peak by 2030 or before, said Meale.

The Senate has yet to approve President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Beijing, former senior State Department official Nicholas Burns.

China has at times appeared to indicate it would tie cooperation on climate change to other issues between the countries. However, Meale cited the U.S.-China deal to work harder together to cut emissions this decade, reached last month at COP26 in Glasgow, as an indication of China's willingness to engage.

"This is a very positive outcome and one we plan to build on in our bilateral engagement going forward and ... get to a place where things are speeded up, where the numbers look better," he said.

While Washington and Beijing have many areas of disagreement, "this is one area where we are cooperating and cooperating very productively," Meale said.

Meale spoke to reporters at a briefing on Friday but his comments were embargoed until Monday.

While "no country is where we need to be" on carbon reduction, China plays an outsize role because of its heavy dependence on coal, Meale said.

"So there is an extraordinary need for engagement, exchange of expertise, collaborative thinking to ask ourselves, how can China step up its ambition and step up its timeline so that we can rescue the 1.5 goal," Meale said.

Xi's pledge had no effect on domestic developments and China has continued to build coal-fired plants within the country at a rapid pace. With the growing use of solar and wind power, China has slightly cut its dependence on coal as a proportion of energy production from more than 70 percent to around 57 percent.

China has also ramped up coal production in recent months to ensure a steady supply for winter heating, something Meale called a "challenging short-term development."

"What it is bringing focus to is one of the fundamental challenges of transitioning away from hydrocarbons (for which) we need effective transition plans and actions," he said.

Decades of rapid economic growth have dramatically expanded China's energy needs. However, Meale said the U.S. has already shown that a country can continue to grow its economy while reducing emissions.

"We're all going to have to look at the tradeoffs and the transitions and how to get those right. That is absolutely true of the United States. It brings up difficult political issues and it brings up difficult questions of science," he said.

Xi's absence from the Glasgow talks drew criticism from President Joe Biden and questions about China's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Xi has not left China in almost two years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Hanan Province
A heavy duty machine and a motorcycle pass by the cooling towers of a power station in central China's Henan province on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. China and U.S. had a "very good year" for collaboration on dealing with climate change, but Washington is still pushing Beijing to adopt more ambitious carbon reduction goals, the top U.S. diplomat in China said Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan