President Joe Biden kicked off his administration with a flurry of executive orders on climate change that included cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline and rejoining the Paris Agreement. But his effort to address the issue extends beyond U.S. borders and faces a stiff diplomatic challenge with China, the world's largest emitter of carbon.
The Biden administration has already made climate change a key part of relations with the country, covering the topic in a recent two-hour call with Chinese President Xi Jinping weeks after Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry publicly criticized China’s steps to reduce emissions as insufficient.
In a new interview, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates — who said he has discussed climate change with Biden several times since the November election — told Yahoo Finance that China is "super important" to the global fight against climate change because it's a potential source of new technology and a huge player in the high-emitting industrial sector.
But environmental diplomacy with the country poses a "tricky" task for the Biden administration, which must navigate a "complex relationship" while urging China to speed up its emissions reduction, according to Gates.
In his new book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," Gates says rich countries should reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Speaking with Yahoo Finance, he noted that China's goals lag behind that timeline as it continues to back the carbon-intensive energy source coal.
"Their current commitment is zero by 2060," says Gates, former Microsoft (MSFT) CEO. "So how can we — in a win-win kind of way — get them to bring that date earlier, and not have them promoting coal in such a big way?"
That support for coal continues in domestic production as well as the Belt and Road Initiative, a set of China-led development projects worth billions of dollars spread across more than 100 countries, Gates said.
"They are huge in the industrial economy — almost half of the world's cement [and] half of the steel is made in that one country, some of it embedded in exports that they make," he adds. "They also finance coal plants, not just domestically, but as part of the Belt and Road initiative in other countries as well."
"The remaining coal, although there's a few plants in rich countries — and we need to get rid of those — it's really about China and India," he adds.
Biden inherits an adversarial approach to China taken up by his predecessor, President Donald Trump, which included a years-long trade war, restrictions on telecommunications company Huawei, and efforts to ban social media platform TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
Gates, who in April downplayed criticism of China's early response to the coronavirus, has carried out philanthropic and public health initiatives in the country on a host of issues since the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation opened an office in the country in 2007.
Gates took a special interest in climate change over the course of electrification efforts undertaken in the developing world by the Gates Foundation in the early 2000s, when he realized that concerns about carbon emissions could limit energy growth in the developing world, he told The New York Times. His study of the issue culminated with a Ted Talk in 2010 called "Innovating to Zero!," describing the need for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
In 2015, he helped launch the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a collection of private investors who back ventures that will help the world address climate change. Other investors include Amazon (AMZN) founder and outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos and Alibaba Group (BABA) co-founder Jack Ma.
Gates praised Kerry, saying he will make the U.S. relationship with China a central part his effort to galvanize global action on climate change.
"John Kerry is going to do his best to see if this isn't an area that that we're helping each other," Gates says.