China and the US have vowed to work together to slow global warming by issuing a surprising joint statement on Wednesday that will give new impetus to the final days of global climate negotiations. The deal also marks a rare moment of cooperation between superpowers embroiled in geopolitical rivalries that appeared to be at odds during most two-week talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
The two sides agreed to step up efforts to reduce emissions, including by tackling methane and illegal deforestation, China’s special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua told reporters. They will set up a working group to step up action in the 2020s – an important decade – which will meet in the first half of next year. His US counterpart John Kerry said the group will focus on “concrete” measures.
As the world’s two largest economies, “we must actively work to tackle climate change,” Xi said. Kerry said that “the US and China are not short of differences, but on climate cooperation is the only way to get this job done.” The two met at separate press conferences, one after the other, with Xie being the first.
The announcement changed the mood in Glasgow, where negotiators are engaged in heated discussions about how to accelerate measures to curb the rise in global temperature. It was a bilateral agreement between the US and China that paved the way for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.
“The big significance of this is geopolitics,” said Nick Mabey, co-founder of think tank E3G. “The US and China have indicated that they will end the wars of words that have marred the past few days.”
The two countries reaffirmed the temperature targets of the Paris accord, which aims to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and acknowledged that there is a gap between current policies and what needs to be done, Xie said. Both are committed to a successful COP26, including climate finance agreements and rules to create a global carbon market, he said.
Still, China declined to join the US and European Union’s global commitment to cut methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade from 2020 levels. Xie said China will develop its own national plan. . Kerry admitted he had failed to get China to push forward its deadline for reaching the emissions peak from 2030 earlier. “We’ve reached our peak,” he said.
As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China can currently do more than any other country to help the world avoid the worst effects of global warming. But it says its plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 will already be the most ambitious emissions reduction ever.
The joint agreement comes ahead of a virtual summit likely to be held next week between Chinese President Xi Jinping – who skipped a face-to-face appearance at COP26 – and US President Joe Biden. The leaders made two phone calls in addition to several lower-level meetings that the US said were disappointing and did not involve serious involvement from Chinese officials.
The purpose of the meeting is probably simply to put a floor in tension on everything from technology to trade, human rights and the status of Taiwan. Xi wrote in a letter to the National Committee on US-China Relations this week that China is poised to deepen ties with the US and better manage their disputes.
Both leaders have an incentive to move the relationship on a more balanced basis as they each focus on challenges at home, and climate issues are one of the few areas where they can work together. But the longer-term trajectory is still toward a clash between the world’s two largest economies as they compete for both economic and strategic influence around the world.
“It can only be good news that the US and China are working closely together on climate change and reducing methane emissions,” said Bernice Lee, research director at Chatham House. “But the statement is not enough to close the deal. The real test of Washington and Beijing is how hard they push for a 1.5°C deal here in Glasgow.”