Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks at a briefing on climate policy in the Brady Briefing Room of the…
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks at a briefing on climate policy in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Jan. 27, 2021.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. said China must raise its ambitions on carbon neutrality as the world’s two largest emitters seek cooperation to reverse what senior officials describe as a “critical standalone issue”: climate change.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has spoken to his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, the State Department confirmed, adding that conversations between the two countries will continue. China is the largest emitter of carbon in the world.

China's representative on climate change Xie Zhenhua attends a environment ministers meeting in Montreal, Canada on Sept. 16, 2017.

Xie was recently appointed as Beijing's new special climate envoy. Xie was China's top negotiator during key climate meetings in Copenhagen and Paris.

"The climate challenge does not get successfully addressed without significant action by China. China represents almost 30% of global emissions, in addition to its carbon-intensive investments in dozens of Belt and Road projects," a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

“China and all countries must raise their ambitions [in net-zero emissions] on the global stage,” the spokesperson said.

Last September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced the country would strive to have carbon dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2019 file photo, smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in Hejin in central China's Shanxi Province.

The U.S. contributes about 15% of the world’s emissions. U.S. President Joe Biden has committed to ambitious targets, including the U.S. achieving a 100% clean energy economy and reaching net-zero emissions no later than 2050. 

Kerry had said he knows Xie very well and the two had worked with each other for about 20 years. Xie had represented China in climate talks during past high-level annual dialogues between the U.S. and China.

In July 2013, the U.S. and China started special meetings on climate change and energy cooperation under the framework of then-U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), shortly after a Climate Change Working Group was established in April 2013.

Future U.S.-China climate talks are said to be likely conducted through a combination of bilateral and multilateral channels.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters during a news conference, March 1, 2021, at U.N. headquarters.

Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that while the U.S. and China “significantly disagree” on many areas, such as human rights issues, the two nations may cooperate on climate issues.

“There are some areas where there will be times we will hope to work with the Chinese in a cooperative way, and I would give as an example, working with them on climate change,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

China also views climate cooperation as a window of opportunity to reset its relationship with the U.S., which is at its worst in decades.

Yang Jiechi, Politburo member of the Communist Party of China, talks to the media in Tokyo, Japan, Feb. 28, 2020.

“Climate change, renewable energy and low carbon sustainable development could be areas of mutually beneficial cooperation,” China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, said at a February webinar.

"The force for bilateral exchanges and cooperation has never been absent,” Yang said. “Such voices of reason, in stark contrast with the noise and disruption from China hawks, are most valuable for upholding overall stability of China-U.S. relations."

But critics are skeptical that climate change can serve as a stabilizing factor in U.S.-China relations.

“China's 2060 net-zero target will drive their industrial policy, essentially enhancing competition, not cooperation with the U.S.,” said Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “Climate change, therefore, encourages China to double down on industrial policies that result in unfair competition, justifying protectionist policies in key sectors, such as electric vehicles and new energy.”

“The big question is whether John Kerry will recognize these factors and hold out for substantive reforms or whether he will seek an empty political victory with a symbolic agreement that legitimizes China's anti-competitive policies in the name of climate cooperation,” Thompson told VOA.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration replaced the S&ED with U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (DSD), a format that was later stalled as the bilateral relationship worsened to its lowest point in decades.

When asked about a future framework of U.S.-China talks, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said recently that he did not "want to get into formats or any other upcoming engagements."

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.