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U.S., China Agree to Tackle Climate Crisis with ‘Seriousness, Urgency’

In a joint statement late Saturday, the United States and China committed to work together on the climate crisis “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” carving out space for joint efforts despite a series of major irritants in their bilateral relationship.

“Moving forward, the United States and China are firmly committed to working together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement,” the two countries said, in a statement issued by the U.S. State Department. That includes “enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s in the context of the Paris Agreement” to hold average global warming to 1.5°C. They agreed to develop 2050 decarbonization plans in time for this year’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, help finance “the transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuel based energy to green, low-carbon and renewable energy in developing countries,” and implement a phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons under the Kigali Amendment

The statement also sets out an eight-point agenda of decarbonization measures for further discussion.

The announcement followed a trip to Shanghai this week by U.S. international climate envoy John Kerry, who met with his Chinese counterpart, veteran climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua, the Washington Post reports. The meeting took place less than a week before President Joe Biden is due to convene a virtual climate leaders’ summit on Earth Day, April 22, aimed at building momentum for countries to commit to faster, deeper carbon cuts.

“If we can all hold to 1.5 [Celsius], we’re setting a good example for a lot of other countries as they make choices,” Kerry told the Post earlier in April, during a visit to India. “Obviously, we would love to see China join in that. China is funding coal in various parts of the world, and we need to address that.”

In a landmark announcement in September, President Xi Jinping pledged that China would peak its emissions by 2030 and hit carbon neutrality by 2060. But its latest five-year plan was seen as deferring most of the heavy lifting toward those targets when it was released last month, and an analysis published last week concluded that China will have to shutter 600 coal plants to achieve its climate goals—with the not inconsiderable side benefit of saving US$1.6 trillion.

“If China fails on coal, the rest of the world will fail on containing dangerous climate change,” said Matthew Gray, co-CEO of London, UK-based financial analytics team TransitionZero. “But the stars are now somewhat aligning on breaking China’s addiction to coal.”

The U.S. Environmental Defense Fund hailed the Kerry-Xie announcement in a release Sunday. “After four years of impasse, it is heartening to see the United States and China renew their commitment to cooperation on climate change,” said Nathaniel Keohane, the group’s senior vice president for climate. “For the good of the world, this cooperation needs to bear fruit in the form of concrete steps from both countries to reduce emissions in the near term, including electrifying transportation, stopping the financing of new coal plants, and cutting methane pollution.”

But the bigger-picture relationship between the two superpowers may be more complicated than that, warns the Washington Post’s Today’s Worldview column, citing a comment in the South China Morning Post that suggests Chinese officials are not placing great stock in the Biden administration’s climate overtures. “The expectations that climate cooperation could help reverse the downward spiral in bilateral ties are largely misplaced,” international affairs specialist said Pang Zhongying of the Ocean University of China. “With both China and the U.S. hardening their stance towards each other, it’s getting harder by the day for them to still cooperate on climate in the middle of deepening, across-the-board competition.”