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25 October 2021

Xie Zhenhua: can China’s climate envoy make a difference at Cop26?

The highly regarded veteran of China’s climate team embodies an important and rare openness to the world.

By India Bourke

When the world’s climate delegations meet in Glasgow this November, they will be facing two weeks of tough negotiations. Global pledges on emissions reductions are still on course to produce dangerous levels of warming; Covid has made progress in pre-meetings harder; and geopolitical tensions between the US and China are at a high.

President Xi Jinping’s China is seen as central to the impasse. The country last September proposed to reach net zero by 2060 and to peak emissions by 2030. On Sunday, it released a new plan for how those targets would be achieved. But these ambitions are still well short of the 2050 net-zero target science says is needed to ensure “a safe and sustainable world”. 

“They’re responsible for 27 per cent of global emissions and we can’t keep [the] 1.5[°C temperature rise] alive if China just sits where they are for this decade,” the former US climate envoy Todd Stern warned at a recent event about scaling up ambition.

The planned presence at Cop26 of one man, however, is giving experienced climate negotiators and diplomats a glimmer of hope: Xie Zhenhua, China’s veteran climate envoy.

The 71-year-old has headed his nation’s team at almost all high-level talks since 2007, during which time there have been moments of notoriously tough and tense dispute.

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In 2009, at climate talks in Copenhagen, China’s protection of its “right to development” helped mire negotiations in failure. “Those Chinese f**kers are trying to rat-f**k us,” reportedly erupted Australia’s then-prime minister Kevin Rudd in frustration at the summit’s stalemate. In 2011, video footage of talks in Durban, South Africa show Xie thumping the table over and over – in order to drive home the sense of injustice China felt about the demands being made of it by Western nations.

But alongside the disagreements there have also been breakthroughs, and Xie is widely credited in negotiating circles for contributing to them. In 2014, he and Stern hammered out a compromise on emissions targets, resolving a longstanding deadlock between the world’s top two polluters. A year later, in Paris, he played a vital role in persuading developing nations to settle a last-minute dispute, recalled senior climate negotiator Kaveh Guilanpour.

In Xie, foreign negotiators at Cop26 will have a Chinese envoy they admire and trust. Descriptions of the tall, bespectacled diplomat range from huggable “panda” to “statesman”. Stern recently referred to his old counterpart as a “good friend” who is “committed to the cause”. While experienced climate advisers told the New Statesman they’d never heard anyone say a bad word about him: “To survive and thrive in the Chinese system without making people dislike you is not easy! I don’t know if I could ever fully understand how he achieved that. But that’s just how it is,” said Li Shuo, a climate policy adviser with Greenpeace China.

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This remarkable capacity for eliciting goodwill is especially key when it comes to the relationship between China and the US. Negotiators for both sides have always had to balance their domestic political needs with the cost of climate change, but increasing geopolitical hostility has narrowed the space in which Xie and his US counterpart, John Kerry, can operate.

“I think we’re lucky to have two people with a strong personal relationship,” ​​said Nick Mabey, CEO of environmental think tank E3G. When you get to the final moments of these things, it will be Xie and Kerry looking each other in the eyes, and so it’s critical they know each other; they may disagree on policy, but hopefully they won’t necessarily mistrust or misunderstand.”

Behind this international respect on a global stage lies Xie’s long commitment to environmental protection at home. By 1993 he had risen to be head of China’s environment ministry, overseeing the introduction of pollution reforms and environmental targets. In 2005, he resigned after a chemical plant explosion left six dead and thousands displaced. But his departure from government was short-lived, and when he returned as vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic development body, he pushed for green reforms.

For Li, the historical scope of this career is also integral to Xie’s clout. “Back then, if you were at a ministerial level, you needed to take the initiative and make bold commitments,” he explained of the 1980s, when China’s economy was only just beginning to open up to the world. Senior officials often had to decide on the spot how to accommodate visiting business delegations. This bequeathed Xie “a very open and inclusive approach”, more akin to a political “statesman” than a bureaucrat.

Such openness is rare among contemporary officials in China. “The bureaucracy now is increasingly cautious and closed to the real world,” Li lamented. “I interact with Chinese officials a lot and most don’t feel like I’m interacting with a real human being. I feel more like I’m interacting with a machine; or parts of a machine in a larger bureaucratic machinery.”

It is feared that when Xie retires, it could hasten the end of climate change’s role as a diplomatic bridge between China and the US. “I often ask myself, if we don’t have a figure like him, will the US and China still be able to separate the climate agenda from the more toxic bilateral relationship? And the answer to that question is probably ‘no’,” said Li.

There is perhaps some hope, however, in the fact that China’s government does not want Xie to step down. Ministers of his rank usually retire from official roles once they turn 68. Yet the creation of the position of special adviser to the environment ministry has allowed Xie to continue. “I think that’s a positive sign coming from China,” said Guilanpour, “that they understand he’s well regarded abroad and want to keep that.”

With President Xi almost certain not to attend the summit in Glasgow, Xie will be his proxy. The chances of any clear breakthrough on increased ambition on emissions reductions from China looks slim. But Xie’s very presence keeps that possibility alive.

[See also: Why we shouldn’t panic – just yet – about China increasing coal production]

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