US climate envoy John Kerry said on Thursday he expected to speak to his new Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua soon and called him a "leader" and a "capable advocate" for his country on the issue of global warming.
Kerry, who reports directly to President Joe Biden and will represent the United States in future climate talks, said he got word on Wednesday of China's selection of Xie for the job of special climate envoy.
"We haven't spoken yet. We will at the appropriate moment. Shortly, I'm sure," Kerry told Reuters in an interview. "I know him very well because I've worked with him for ... 20 years or so."
Xie led the Chinese delegation in global climate negotiations from 2007 to 2018. Biden brought the United States back into the international Paris climate accord that tackles global warming after his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew the country from the pact.
A deal between the United States and China to partner on climate change in 2014 was seen as pivotal in brokering the Paris agreement in 2015 when Biden was vice president.
"He's been a long time ... leader and a believer," Kerry said of Xie. "We know each other and have respect for, I think, each other's efforts thus far."
China surpassed the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases more than a decade ago because of its rapid economic expansion and reliance on coal. Last year, Beijing said it aims to hit peak emissions before the end of this decade, a pledge many climate activists say is too modest.
During the pandemic, China brought online nearly 40 GW of coal-fired power plants to spur its economic recovery, raising concerns about its short-term climate goals.
Kerry repeated his position that cooperation with China on global warming did not signal Washington would neglect other concerns. Sticking points between the two countries include human rights and trade.
"This is not a tradeoff of climate for those other issues. This is a freestanding international crisis, which all of us need to deal with no matter what," Kerry said.
Biden's administration is expected to take a more collaborative role with other countries in facing concerns about China than the Trump White House did.
Kerry said he had already been in contact with counterparts in Europe, Korea and Australia to coordinate strategy.
He declined to say whether he endorsed a multilateral carbon adjustment tax with the European Union and Canada to pressure China to cut emissions.
"It's much too early to be advocating on one particular international policy or another," he said. "We're really trying to figure out what the best ... targets are with respect to the beginning of a ... complicated conversation."
Kerry, a former secretary of state and US senator from Massachusetts, is working with Biden's domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy, who is forming a plan to cut US emissions that Kerry can present to the world.
Kerry said the Biden administration has many legislative options that could be used to advance climate goals from an infrastructure bill to budget requests to free-standing climate bills potentially put forward by lawmakers.