DeBriefed 19 January 2024: John Kerry retires; Uncertainty over UK Labour’s pledge; China’s new climate envoy profiled 


Welcome to Carbon Brief’s DeBriefed. 
An essential guide to the week’s key developments relating to climate change.

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John Kerry leaves the climate stage

STEPPING DOWN: John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, will soon leave his role in order to support Joe Biden in the US presidential election later this year, Axios reported. His retirement “comes at a time of political threat to Biden’s climate agenda, with the possibility of a second Trump presidency looming”, the Financial Times noted.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Kerry was “key to brokering the crucial 2015 Paris Agreement” and “worked effectively with China despite strained diplomatic ties”, BBC News reported. The New York Times said that the role of climate envoy is a “major diplomatic role that was created especially for him and…will face an uncertain future with his departure”. It added that “no successor has yet been tapped”.

Labour’s climate pledge

GREEN COMMITMENT?: Labour’s £28bn climate investment pledge “was not included in Labour’s…‘campaigning bible’”, the Daily Telegraph reported, throwing the policy “into fresh doubt”. A Labour spokesperson told the newspaper that the party is still committed to the plan despite the omission. But Labour shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told the Times that the figure might be scaled back, “if Tory spending commitments meant there was less money to spend”. 

FACING PRESSURE: Right-leaning media outlets continued to heavily criticise Labour’s climate policy this week. The Daily Telegraph characterised it as “fanciful”, while separate articles in the Sun called the plan a “massive green splurge” and said that Labour might “impose punitive green policies if they get into government”. 

ECONOMIC BENEFITS: However, former Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, in an interview with Carbon Brief, said that he believes “the Labour Party’s decision to come out and say that we should be investing in green industries…is the right one”. The possible economic boost from such investment means “there’s an economic case to be won, as well as a values case, at this election”, he added.

  • DEFORESTATION SLOWING: The Amazon saw deforestation rates fall by nearly 50% in 2023 compared to the previous year, BBC News reported.
  • SHELL PRESSURE: 27 investors demanded that Shell improve its environmental targets at its annual meeting, the Financial Times said. Shell will also sell its controversial Nigerian onshore oil business, although it will continue with other oil, gas and solar projects in the country, reported Bloomberg.
  • EU 2040 TARGET: The EU is discussing its climate target plan for 2040, with several member states supporting a target of a 90% emissions cut relative to 1990, reported Euractiv.
  • FOSSILS AT COP: Azerbaijan released details of 28-strong organising committee for the COP29 climate summit containing no women on Monday, the Guardian reported. On Friday, On Friday, Azerbaijan announced it will make changes to the committee, the Azerbaijani Press Agency reported, although did not provide any further details.
  • SNOW DEFICITS: The India Meteorological Department reported “large winter snowfall deficits” in some of India’s northern states, the Third Pole said, adding that the deficits could impact “crucial water-sharing treaties” with other countries. 

The number of additional deaths by 2050 that could occur due to the impact of climate change on extreme weather and sea levels, and rising air pollution, according to the World Economic Forum.

  • A new paper in Geoscience Data Journal presented the results of a citizen science project to digitise weather observations recorded in UK Met Office daily weather reports between 1861 and 1875.
  • Since 1985, the Greenland ice sheet has lost more than 5,000 square kilometres in area, corresponding to more than 1,000bn tonnes of ice lost, according to a new study in Nature
  • Research in Climatic Change revealed that, following wildfires in California between 2017 and 2021, there was a significant increase in tweets linking wildfires to climate change.

(For more, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth daily summaries of the top climate news stories on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.)


China's population declines for the second year in a row.

China’s population shrunk to 1.410 billion from a high of 1.413 billion in 2021, according to data released by China’s national bureau of statistics. Should this trend continue, the ageing of China’s population could “exacerbat[e] structural imbalances” in the country’s economy and slow overall growth, according to Reuters. This could have consequences for energy consumption and, thus, emissions. However, studies disagree on the exact link between ageing and emissions reduction – for example, one study found that population ageing “negatively correlates” with carbon emission intensity, while another argued that household emissions will rise as the population ages, especially in urban areas.

Who is China’s new climate envoy?

This week, Carbon Brief explores what China’s new climate envoy might mean for climate diplomacy.

Liu Zhenmin Credit: Lev Radin / Alamy Stock Photo

On 12 January, China announced that career diplomat Liu Zhenmin (pictured) will replace Xie Zhenhua as China’s new special envoy on climate change.

The move was not a complete surprise, with Bloomberg floating the possibility in October 2023. 

Liu was clearly positioned as Xie’s successor at COP28. Carbon Brief heard that, in one notable moment, Xie interrupted himself during a speech to claim he was feeling tired, handing the stage to Liu to finish the speech instead.

Does Liu have climate experience?

Liu began his career in the ministry of foreign affairs, rising to vice minister. He was appointed under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs at the United Nations (UN) in 2017.

Much of Liu’s work at the UN included a “climate change and sustainable development” brief, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Monday. She added:

“We believe that [he] will continue stepping up dialogue and cooperation with all parties.”

Liu is familiar with climate negotiations, having attended 10 COPs. He was involved in negotiations to develop both the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, Bloomberg reported.

“Liu was a key driver in landing the Kyoto Protocol,” Yuan Ying, Greenpeace East Asia chief China representative, tells Carbon Brief. “That is a promising piece of experience.”

What does this mean for China’s climate policy?

Bloomberg described Liu as a “non-controversial option” – and his public statements have largely been in line with China’s official positions. 

In an interview with Caijing Eleven at the COP28 climate summit, he said that countries must “balance” ambition and pragmatism and that China’s transition away from coal will be “difficult”. 

“China is doing real work, especially in the rapid development of renewable energy”, he said, which will gradually replace coal. 

“Developed countries still have to take the lead in making changes in order to leave more space for the economic growth of developing countries,” he added.

Nevertheless, his past comments have hinted at areas of personal interest. He wrote two articles arguing that “more must be done to ensure that investments…do not undermine our efforts to address climate change.” 

He also described the circular economy as “one of [his] favourite topics during [his] tenure at the UN” during an event on the sidelines of COP28.

Will China cooperate with developed countries on climate?

Liu attended COP28 as a senior adviser to Xie, allowing him to cement relationships with his future counterparts.

He was seen by Carbon Brief in multiple meetings with the US’s John Kerry and Susan Biniaz. German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan confirmed in a COP28 side-event attended by Carbon Brief that she and Liu also held discussions. 

Nevertheless, Kerry and Xie’s departure increases uncertainty around future US-China alignment, a dynamic key to breakthroughs at the COPs in Paris, Glasgow and Dubai. 

Li Shuo, director of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s China Climate Hub, is not optimistic. He told Politico that “if climate change generates news on the US-China front in 2024[,] it is more likely bad news than good”.

2024 EXPECTATIONS: Carbon Tracker outlined some of the key issues to watch in climate and energy in 2024, including India’s elections, the adoption of climate disclosure rules in the US and the development of the East African crude oil pipeline.

GIGAFACTORY TOUR: The Fully Charged Show gained rare access to one of Chinese battery manufacturer CATL’s gigafactories, taking viewers on a tour of how batteries are made.

PROBLEM-SOLVING: On the BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week, host Kirsty Wark spoke with Our World in Data’s Hannah Ritchie, Bloomberg Green’s Akshat Rathi and the British Antarctic Survey’s Michael Meredith about solutions to tackle climate change.

Coming up

Pick of the jobs

DeBriefed is edited by Daisy Dunne. Please send any tips or feedback to [email protected]

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