When leaders of the world meet in Glasgow next week to hammer out the next stage of battling climate change, it’s likely that Chinese leader Xi Jinping won’t be present. Instead the task of promoting and defending China’s position will fall—as it often has for more than a decade—to Xie Zhenhua, China’s special climate envoy.
For those who closely watch the Chinese climate policy space, that’s a good thing. The now 71-year-old climate negotiator has been a crucial figure in China’s climate policy shift toward making binding commitments, without which the global climate effort would be pointless. At the same time, Xie has often forcefully iterated China’s stance that rich countries with a historically larger contribution to emissions have a greater responsibility than China—the world’s largest carbon emitter since 2006.
In 2014, Xie and then secretary of state John Kerry—selected last year by president Joe Biden as the US’s first presidential climate envoy—hammered out a climate pact that helped move past a longstanding impasse between the US and China. That agreement was vital for the successful negotiation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, a landmark global climate treaty that has the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. When the two men met again this past April, the world’s two biggest emitters, though embroiled in ongoing tensions, managed to issue a joint statement about the importance of tackling the climate crisis, and pave the way for Xi to attend a US-hosted virtual climate summit.
Those who know Xie describe him as frank, a straight shooter, and ”a believer” in the climate change mission. His manner makes him a rarity among today’s Chinese officials, who are increasingly risk-averse about speaking up amid president Xi Jinping’s various crackdowns on officials, including a sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
“Xie is not a bureaucrat. He has the style of Chinese officials in the 1980 and 1990s when they had the guts to shoulder risks and take initiatives, which you can’t see in today’s Chinese officials. That is not because the officials today don’t want to [have that style], but because the current system doesn’t allow them to,” said Li Shuo, senior global policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia, who has met Xie in person at climate conferences. “Talking to Xie feels like communicating with a real human being, whereas speaking to other Chinese officials feels more like talking to robots.”
At COP26, happening in Glasgow between Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, Xie will arguably be the most important person present, and all eyes will be on how China plans to meet its existing commitments—or deepen them.
How Xie became China’s voice on climate change
Xie, like many Communist Party officials of his generation, grew up amid China’s domestic political turmoil. As a teenager, he was one of China’s millions of “sent-down” youth who were dispatched to the countryside to retrain their minds through hard labor during the Cultural Revolution unleashed under Mao Zedong. Xie was sent to Heihe, a backwater city in the northern province of Heilongjiang, an experience Xie credits with making him more mature and resilient, according to reports.
As the Cultural Revolution waned, Xie graduated with a degree in engineering physics from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University in 1977, after which his career in the public office quickly took off. After starting off as an assistant engineer in a government department, Xie worked his way up to becoming director at China’s State Environmental Protection Administration between 1993 to 2005. Chinese media describe his leadership approach during his tenure as the head of China’s environmental protection agencies as “thunder-like,” referring to his forceful efforts to expose violators and push companies to comply with environmental rules.
But he also faced a major professional crisis while at the agency. In December 2005, the central government blasted Xie’s department over its handling of a series of explosions at a chemical plant in northeastern China that killed six and severely polluted a nearby river, forcing the evacuation of thousands. Xie resigned over the episode.
Remarkably that didn’t stop Xie’s ascension. In 2007, Xie was named vice minister at China’s top economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, which also oversaw climate policy until 2018. In that role, he led the Chinese delegation at key conferences ranging from the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which for the first time rallied most countries globally to agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming.
A moment at the 2011 Conference of Parties, as the annual United Nations climate conference is called, encapsulates Xie’s emphatic style, that won him credibility with developing countries and impressed audiences at home.
“What we have seen so far is that although some countries…committed to taking the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, did they reduce their emissions? They committed to providing financial and technical support for developing countries, but did they really provide anything?” asked Xie (video), who was then heading the Chinese delegation to COP17 in Durban, South Africa. “We are developing countries. We need to develop and eradicate poverty while protecting the environment. We’ve done what we should do, but you haven’t. What right do you have to lecture us?” His comments were followed by a round of applause from Chinese and other participants at the meeting.
Xie stepped down from his role at the NDRC in 2015 to focus on representing China on climate issues globally. In February, Beijing appointed Xie as the country’s special climate envoy although he had previously retired from his role as the country’s special representative on climate change in 2019.
China’s agenda at COP26
Since last year, China has made a series of important pledges. At the UN in September 2020, Chinese president Xi said China’s emission would peak around 2030 and it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The country’s cabinet laid out more details about these plans on Sunday (Oct. 24).
At COP26, Xie is likely to continue to promote China’s existing climate commitments and investments, while also defending its continued heavy reliance on coal amid energy security concerns. The conference could be another opportunity for Beijing to sell itself as a clean-energy leader, analysts say, amid competition with the US around these technologies. In a speech on Saturday (Oct. 23), Xie once again urged developed countries to allocate more funding and technology to developing countries so that they can combat climate change, and said countries such as the US should “face up to their historical responsibilities.”
Meanwhile, Xie’s interactions with Kerry will be watched closely by analysts to find clues to the countries’ future climate cooperation. The two diplomats’ are to some extent “caught in between a rock and a hard place” with the complicated political situation prevailing in each of their countries, according to Greenpeace’s Li.
“The two need to find a common ground within a very limited space—such a ground may not solve all the problems [with climate] but can preserve the possibility of the two countries’ continued communication in this space,” said Li.