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US envoy Kerry takes aim at China over unclear 2060 climate pledge

Highlights

Kerry warns Beijing over overseas power plant construction

Birol says emerging market clean energy investment must triple

IEA 'strategic partnership' signed with India

London — China's plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 lack clarity and appear to be undermined by the country's financing of coal-fired power station construction around the world, the US' new presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, told the online version of the Davos World Economic Forum Jan. 27.

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Kerry, who signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 on behalf of the US, before Washington's withdrawal under president Donald Trump, has been tasked by the new US administration with reinvigorating climate diplomacy.

He used one of his first public appearances since taking office to voice frustration with China's climate policies, while at the same event International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol called for a tripling of clean energy investment in the emerging markets, particularly of Asia.

China, the world's largest carbon emitter, announced in September it aimed to hit peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Kerry, however, said: "China has said they are going to do something by 2060, but we don't have a clue really yet how they're going to get there. I hope we can work with China, I hope we'll be able to get China to share a sense of how we can get there sooner than 2060."

"China's done a lot, but they are also funding 70% of the coal-fired power plants around the world in the belt and road initiative," Kerry said, referring to Chinese infrastructure investment in neighboring countries and regions.

Birol meanwhile highlighted the "locked in" emissions associated with power stations recently constructed or under construction in emerging markets, on the same day as the IEA signed a "strategic partnership" agreement with India.

"Whatever we do in Europe is very important... Japan, or soon the US, and elsewhere, [but] today more than two thirds of global emissions come from emerging countries. In the next 30 years almost all the growth in global emissions comes from these countries," Birol said.

"If our aim is to reach net zero emissions, if our aim is to address climate change globally ... there is no way without hugely accelerating the clean energy investment in emerging countries, no way whatsoever."

"In many countries, especially in Asian emerging countries, there is already emissions locked in energy infrastructure, which is run by coal and other fossil fuels, which are very young in nature — still the investments are paying back," Birol added.

Birol praised recent solar power investments in India and wind power investment in Brazil, but said, "When you look at the clean energy investments in emerging countries we need to multiply it almost by a factor of three, and when I look at the numbers I don't see currently a big jump in the appetite of investors, who talk about ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance], and so on, to invest in those countries."

Birol said there was no lack of global capital or opportunities to invest in clean energy in emerging economies, but there was a need to match investment with potential projects; the IEA will be making recommendations in the area at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in May, he added.

Asian focus

The 30-member IEA was set up in response to the 1973 oil crisis, but has broadened its scope, and is trying to influence major emerging economies such as China and India in respect to emissions.

India has been courted by the IEA as a potential future member, with an eye to the impact this could have on arch-rival China.

The IEA said it hoped its new agreement with India would lead "to an extensive exchange of knowledge" and be a "stepping stone" toward Indian membership, with the IEA publishing a special report on India shortly.

Indian power ministry secretary Sanjiv Nandan Sahai described the signing of the new agreement as a "historic day."

"Under the framework of this newly formed alliance, we will establish with the IEA the key steps for enhancing energy security and substantive cooperation across the full spectrum of IEA activities. We hope this partnership leads to an extensive exchange of knowledge and can be a stepping stone towards India becoming a full member of the IEA," he added.