Podesta’s climate gambit with China

By Sara Schonhardt, Scott Waldman | 05/08/2024 06:31 AM EDT

The White House’s global climate adviser will aim to be tough on Beijing without pushing it too far away.

John Podesta, U.S. senior adviser to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation, crosses his arms at a climate event in Berlin last month.

John Podesta, a senior climate adviser to President Joe Biden, will meet with his Chinese counterpart Wednesday. John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

When the White House added international diplomacy to John Podesta’s job of implementing America’s historic climate law, Washington insiders celebrated the move as a deft way to link U.S. environmental action with global pledges.

That theory will be tested Wednesday as Podesta meets with his Chinese counterpart, Liu Zhenmin.

It’s their first formal face-to-face talk since both men assumed their new roles as climate diplomats earlier this year. It comes as Podesta is overseeing a massive rollout of climate funding that escalates U.S. competition with China through a building spree of domestic factories for solar and wind components, electric vehicles and other supply chain needs to feed America’s global race on clean energy.


Podesta’s dual roles have set the stage for an encounter in which he will simultaneously coax China to reduce its climate pollution and support broader global action to address rising temperatures, while pursuing U.S. objectives that could hamper those efforts.

“While in many respects it’s great to have Podesta in this role, I think we are now seeing an agenda where the core cooperative climate discussion is going to be certainly much more linked to the trade and competitiveness piece,” said Joanna Lewis, an energy and environment professor at Georgetown University and and an expert on U.S.-China climate relations.

Podesta and Liu are expected to discuss how to deliver on a joint deal reached last October to cut methane emissions and boost renewable energy to jump-start a shift away from oil, gas and coal. But it’s colliding with growing tensions between the Biden administration and China over a wave of cheap solar parts into the U.S. that is deterring domestic efforts to expand American manufacturing of panels and components.

Looming over any bilateral engagement are the U.S. elections in November and the uncertainty they cast over President Joe Biden’s climate policy.

“It’s this balancing act, and because it’s an election year, it’s going to be harder to make a lot of progress on climate,” said Lewis.

White House sensitivities

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and his congressional allies have spent years trying to brand Biden’s climate policies as a boost for China at the expense of American energy and manufacturing jobs.

China dominates the global market for clean energy components and the processing of critical minerals that are essential to those technologies. That’s being used by Republicans to appeal to blue collar workers who are worried that their jobs are in danger, said George David Banks, who served in the Trump White House as a climate adviser. But increased reliance on Chinese parts has also become a Democratic concern.

“China has so much capacity that it outstrips what the world actually demands for some of these technologies and when that’s the case, it’s very hard to build a U.S. low-carbon manufacturing sector if you don’t address it,” Banks said.

Breaking the reliance on components and critical minerals from China has been a theme of Biden’s plan to increase U.S. renewable manufacturing and deployment.

Last month on a visit to China, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the Chinese government was subsidizing solar panels and electric vehicles, leading to unfair competition. A week later, Biden traveled to Pittsburgh to call for a tripling of tariffs on Chinese aluminum and steel imports and accused Beijing of “cheating.”

“The bottom line is that I want fair competition with China, not conflict, and we’re in a stronger position to win the economic competition of the 21st century against China or anyone else because we’re investing in America and American workers again, finally,” Biden said, referring to the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill — both of which are funneling climate funding into the economy.

Podesta also recently called out China for its “non-market” policies and practices, saying it has “distorted the global market” for clean energy products, such as batteries and critical minerals.

In the same speech at Columbia University, last month, he announced the launch of a climate and trade task force to address high-carbon goods and said the U.S. was ready to “deepen dialogues” with the European Union as it rolls out a carbon border tax.

Those comments have not escaped China’s attention. Ahead of his visit, China’s climate envoy Liu told Bloomberg that if the U.S. and other Western countries insist on “decoupling” from imports of Chinese clean energy technology, it would raise costs and delay the transition away from fossil fuels.

New roles

Podesta has a long history of working with China on climate change. He helped lay the foundations for stronger U.S.-China relations ahead of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

But now he’s also charged with rolling out a package of incentives to accelerate America’s clean energy industries — in part to reduce China’s dominance.

That’s different from the role of Podesta’s predecessor, John Kerry, the former secretary of State who stepped down in March and worked on building global climate engagement — even when faced with reservations from the White House.

“I had to convince some people in the administration that we really needed to work with China at a time where, as you all know, the rhetoric of Washington and most of the currents are kind of moving against that idea,” Kerry said during a talk in March at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It helped that he had established a decadeslong friendship with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, who also stepped aside earlier this year.

“I think there is still interest from both sides to preserve the climate agenda and the climate cooperation, to be engaged and find ways to work with each other,” said Li Shuo, director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “But the shifting nature of the bilateral relationship will require them to deal with a more complicated relationship than their predecessors.”

There are areas for U.S.-China engagement that could avoid friction. Those include efforts to cut methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that both countries produce in abundance; and collaboration at the state and provincial level. Both are pieces of the so-called Sunnylands deal reached last year that Podesta and Liu are expected to expand on during their two-day meeting.

Some climate experts say Podesta can manage his dual roles while moving the U.S.-China relationship forward.

“It’s not going to solve all the issues about human rights or trade or other things that divide the two countries and they will both be very realistic about that,” said Mary Nichols, distinguished counsel at UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and vice chair of the California-China Climate Institute.

“But at the same time, these are high-level, highly experienced people who have a mission to try to save the planet, and I think they’re going to approach it with some real creative and practical energy,” she added.