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Newsom is traveling to China to talk climate change

California Governor Gavin Newsom arrives at a memorial for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Oct. 5. Newsom will try to reinforce California’s role as a global leader on climate change as he begins a weeklong visit to China on Monday. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Gov. Gavin Newsom will try to reinforce his state’s role as a global leader on climate change as he begins a weeklong visit to China on Monday, a trip that presents both political risk and opportunity for crucial international collaboration.

Newsom’s tour begins with a discussion in Hong Kong before he continues on to Beijing, Shanghai and the provinces of Guangdong and Jiangsu. He’ll visit the first Chinese city to deploy an all-electric bus fleet, tour an offshore wind facility and see a wetlands preserve. He’ll sign agreements with leaders of Chinese provinces to set mutual commitments on a host of climate goals. California has already signed dozens of such agreements with subnational governments.

Newsom’s agenda also includes conversations on “strengthening cultural ties and combating xenophobia,” and he will visit a school with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

His trip to China follows a brief visit to Israel.

Governors of California, which has an economy larger than most countries, have a long history of climate collaboration with China. Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger also traveled there to swap knowledge on reducing air pollution and emissions, and since leaving office, Brown has launched the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, Newsom’s trip comes at a very different political moment, with rising tensions between the United States and China over trade, human rights, the future of Taiwan and international conflicts. It follows a recent visit to Beijing by a congressional delegation led by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who sought a sharper condemnation of Hamas by the Chinese government.

Climate remains one area where collaboration is seen as both possible and necessary. Both countries appear to have fully re-engaged in the run-up to the next U.N. climate change conference, which opens Nov. 30 in Dubai.

China suspended climate and other talks with the U.S. in August 2022 to show its anger over a visit by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to resume climate talks three months later at a meeting with President Joe Biden in Indonesia.

John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, held in-person meetings in Beijing in July, and he and Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua have held regular video calls since then, Xie told a forum in Beijing last month.

David Victor, a professor and co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, said state-level dialogue is an important avenue for progress given the complicated politics of the U.S.-China relationship. Animosity between the two countries has led to less travel and fewer joint research projects.

“The states really are where anything substantive is going to happen,” Victor said, while at the national level, “there’s no political constituency for opening the door and having a deeper relationship.”

The Newsom administration has been in close contact with the White House and Kerry ahead of the governor’s trip, said Lauren Sanchez, the governor’s senior climate adviser. The White House did not comment on Newsom’s trip.
Brown, the former governor, said political tensions don’t change the fact that greenhouse gases are still being emitted at an alarming rate.

“Cooperation is the absolute requirement. And at this time, I would say California has been pushing the federal government in the direction of more dialogue with China,” Brown said. “It has a very important long-term effect.”

California has passed some of the world’s most aggressive vehicle emissions rules, and Newsom has moved to ban the sale of most new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. The state has a mandate to be carbon neutral by 2045, meaning it will remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as it emits. California is already dealing with drought and wildfires made worse by climate change.

Still, the state is responsible for less than 1% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, meaning its efforts can go only so far without global partnerships, Sanchez said. In 2020, China was responsible for more than 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, compared with the U.S. at 13.5%.

“It’s going to be very difficult to tackle the climate crisis just here in California,” Sanchez said. “Climate change is a global issue, it requires global partnerships.”
California has shared its expertise on air pollution regulations, carbon pricing programs and conservation, Sanchez said.

China, meanwhile, is now more advanced at electrifying the transportation fleet and deploying offshore wind — it has more gigawatts of offshore wind power than the rest of the world combined, Sanchez said. The Biden administration recently held an auction for five offshore wind lease areas along the U.S. West Coast.

Newsom’s second term ends in January 2026, and he cannot seek re-election. He has repeatedly denied an interest in running for president, but he has sought to boost his national profile by campaigning for Democrats in Republican-led states and even agreeing to debate GOP presidential hopeful and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in late November.

The international trip stands to bolster Newsom’s political and policy credentials beyond his state. However, opponents will likely be on the lookout for any signs of coziness between him and China’s communist government that could be used against him in the future.

California Republicans said Newsom shouldn’t be visiting China at a time of tensions over international conflicts and the suppression of free speech. Instead he should focus on problems at home like poverty and crime, Republican state Assembly Leader James Gallagher said in a statement.

“Newsom shouldn’t be playing make-believe diplomat while ignoring the challenges facing our state,” he said.

But climate experts said California has a significant role to play in advancing global climate policy.

“It’s a major clean energy leader. It’s one of the leading economies in the world. It has a huge amount of technical expertise,” said Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “There’s a natural role for California and the California governor.”