A surprise joint statement from China and the United States at the United Nations climate change conference, COP 26, on Wednesday committed the two countries to joint action on methane reductions, grid decarbonization, illegal deforestation, circular economy measures, and “enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s in the context of the Paris Agreement”.
Following the afternoon announcement, climate policy experts watching the negotiations in Glasgow said they welcomed the pledges from the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, but urged the U.S. and Chinese delegations to support better protections for vulnerable countries and a clear limit of 1.5°C on average global warming.
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The U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s was published in a release from the U.S. State Department and announced in separate media briefings by China’s chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. After declaring themselves “alarmed” by the latest science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the countries said they will cooperate on “accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s”.
Their shared to-do list includes:
• Regulatory efforts and environmental standards to reduce emissions through the 2020s;
• Maximizing the societal benefits of the clean energy transition;
• Decarbonization and electrification policies for end use sectors;
• Circular economy measures like green design and renewable resource utilization;
• Deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and direct air capture technologies;
• Working to the ambiguous Paris Agreement goal of holding average global warming “well below 2 degrees C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C,” but with no commitment to the fixed, 1.5°C target that vulnerable countries have repeatedly called for during this COP.
The statement pledges joint efforts and information exchange on methane controls, including new actions to be introduced in the next year and a leaders’ summit in the first half of 2022. It talks about China phasing down coal between 2025 and 2030, and the two countries cooperating on renewable electricity, energy efficiency, distributed generation policies that bring “solar, storage, and other clean power solutions closer to electricity users,” and a crackdown on illegal forestry.
The Guardian says the deal was already in the works by the time delegates arrived in Glasgow to begin 12 days of intensive negotiations October 31.
“The U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration follows a flurry of diplomacy. My hopes were raised when I saw John Kerry sit down with Xie Zhenhua and other officials in the China delegation office last week,” reporter Jonathan Watts liveblogged late Wednesday. “At the time I tweeted, ‘fingers crossed that chief negotiators of world’s two biggest emitters can work together and nudge the world closer to 1.5C climate target’.”
Watts said he had “also heard from sources in China that the two climate diplomats held a convivial meeting in London shortly before the conference started. The foundations for an agreement were coming together,” with China prepared to peak its coal use by 2025 and take domestic action on methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases.
China didn’t sign on to last week’s methane pledge “because it felt developed nations should take the lead,” Watts added. “That position appears to have softened in this agreement, which Kerry will be able to take back to Washington as a sign that the two nations can work together on climate, even if they remain at odds in other areas of geopolitics.”
In sum, “this has got to be a boost for negotiations in Glasgow,” Watts concluded. “The biggest historical emitter (USA) and the biggest current emitter (China) have sent a strong signal they will scale back together. That has made my day. No meaningful deal is possible without them. Now, let’s see how far they are willing to go.”
“Given U.S.-China tensions, the very existence of this announcement is non-trivial,” agreed Dr. Tom Hale, associate professor in global public policy at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. “It strengthens the likelihood of getting a broader political commitment from all countries at Glasgow to ramp up action and ambition in the near term. The agreement also provides a positive boost to presidents Biden and Xi in advance of their summit meeting next week.’
This morning, the deal received a more sanguine assessment from veteran climate diplomacy watcher Ed King.
“Did Washington and Beijing just short circuit or rewire the COP 26 talks with their surprise joint statement?” King asked in his daily conference briefing. “Two views emerged overnight. One: This was a stage-managed nothingburger. There was nothing new bar words, nothing on coal, finance, or loss and damage. The other: The methane and forest lines are positive, as is a new diplomatic alliance and foundation forged between bitter rivals after 30 meetings in 2021.”
King added that the “much-vaunted deal will add a new dynamic into the talks,” while raising questions about China’s participation in some of the negotiating blocs that routinely form at each year’s COP. The announcement received lavish praise from U.S. think tanks, while the BASIC Group, consisting of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China, doubled down on its demands that wealthy countries keep their promises on international climate finance.
Climate community delegates were pleased with the bilateral deal as far as it goes, but still brought the discussion back to the key issues of funding and international crisis response that have dominated the COP.
“The U.S. and China declaration shows that the two countries can cooperate to address the climate crisis,” and “the methane and forest commitments are good news,” said European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris climate agreement. “Now they must cooperate on ensuring an ambitious outcome to COP 26. That means putting us on track to 1.5°C and delivering the vital support needed to those most vulnerable. The success of that cooperation will be judged on the outcome of this vital meeting.”
“It’s positive that the U.S. and China have again declared their intention to work together to accelerate climate action in this decade, as is essential to have any chance of meeting the Paris temperature limitation goals,” agreed E3G associate and veteran COP negotiator Alden Meyer. “Both countries must now start working together here in Glasgow with the vulnerable countries and others that are pressing for the ambitious outcomes on mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, and climate finance that are needed to protect the citizens of the U.S., China, and the rest of the world.”
“It can only be good news that the U.S. and China are working closely on climate change and slashing methane emissions,” said Chatham House Research Director Bernice Lee. “Details remain patchy, but this declaration should dissolve any fears that U.S.-China tensions will stand in the way of success at COP 26.” Now, she added, “the real test of Washington and Beijing is how hard they push for a 1.5°C-aligned deal here in Glasgow.”
Sarah Smith, program director, super-pollutants at the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, praised the two countries’ emphasis on methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span. “Reducing methane is the most effective strategy to slow global warming now, and this declaration is an important step forward,” she said.
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