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Introducing the Current Leaders of China-US Climate Diplomacy – The Diplomat

Following COP28, China and the United States both announced the retirement of their climate envoys, Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry, respectively, after the U.N. climate conference in Abu Dhabi last year. This signifies 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, may not be as well-known as their predecessors, but they bring unique backgrounds that signal a new chapter in China-U.S. communication and cooperation in climate change.

China’s former climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, dedicated his entire career to environmental protection policy before becoming China’s chief climate negotiator. On the other hand, his successor, Liu Zhenmin, has a different background. He started his career as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1982 after earning a college degree in international relations and law. Liu’s involvement in climate issues began when he was appointed as China’s representative to the United Nations, where he played a key role in early negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. He became deputy chief of China’s delegation to COP21 by 2015, working closely with Xie. In 2017, Liu rose to the prominent U.N. position of under-secretary-general overseeing economic and social affairs, expanding his exposure to the intersection 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 aim to better integrate climate policy and foreign policy in a time when climate change and geopolitics are becoming more intertwined. China, being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a competitive producer of low-carbon technologies, such as electric vehicle batteries and solar panels, is increasingly crucial in global efforts to address the impacts of climate change. However, many developed countries in the West view China as a revisionist power that aims to reshape the current international order. This perception has led to trade frictions and efforts to decouple from China in clean technology supply chains, potentially hindering global decarbonization efforts.

Similarly, the United States’ new special climate envoy, John Podesta, brings a fresh dynamic to the role. Unlike his predecessor, John Kerry, Podesta has a background within Democratic inner circles in Washington, D.C., working in the White House under Democratic administrations since Clinton. He played a crucial role in advancing clean energy and climate policy during the Obama administration and was instrumental in the rollout of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the Biden administration. Podesta’s appointment is faced with challenges as calls for the U.S. to enhance its contributions to global climate action grow. He must navigate domestic and international climate affairs, balancing competing interests from domestic stakeholders and international partners.

Podesta and Liu are stepping into their roles when public opinion on climate change is more favorable, with China making strides in the green economy and the United States reasserting its role in international climate efforts. The envoys must build on the personal connections established by their predecessors to navigate evolving geopolitical challenges and sustain the momentum of climate diplomacy. Both have backgrounds that suggest they are well-placed to continue the legacy of close personal diplomacy, fostering collaborations between the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. Their ability to navigate political debates, tensions, and conflicts will determine the success of their tenure in advancing climate action on a global scale.


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