By Jake Spring and Valerie Volcovici
GLASGOW (Reuters) – A surprise deal between China and the United States, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, has given the UN’s COP26 climate summit a boost as it enters the final two days of tough negotiations to try to prevent the global warming will be catastrophic.
US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua unveiled a sketch late Wednesday in which China, the largest producer and user of coal, pledged to accelerate the transition from the dirtiest fossil fuel.
The agreement between two world powers, divided by a series of diplomatic disputes over other issues, sends a strong message to delegations at COP26, including fossil fuel producers that are the main cause of man-made global warming.
“Together, we have expressed our support for a successful COP26, including certain elements that will further the ambition,” Kerry told a news conference. “Every step is important now and we have a long journey ahead of us.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Xie told reporters that China would strengthen its emissions reduction targets. “Both sides will collaborate and work with other parties to ensure a successful COP26 and enable a result that is both ambitious and balanced,” said Xie.
The joint statement said China, home to half of the world’s coal-fired power stations, would begin phasing out its coal consumption from 2026-30 and also cut its methane emissions.
Observers at the climate talks in Glasgow were concerned before the announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping was not present and Beijing had made no substantial new commitments to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
China’s climate plan also failed to address methane emissions, which are largely related to its sprawling coal industry.
The United States has set a goal of decarbonizing its economy by 2050, although President Joe Biden has struggled to pass crucial legislation to do so through a politically divided Congress.
“It is really encouraging to see those countries that have been in conflict in so many areas have come to an agreement on what is the greatest challenge facing humanity today,” EU climate policy leader Frans Timmermans told Reuters.
“It certainly helps us come to an agreement here at COP.”
Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said it was “the breakthrough that should set the tone for an ambitious COP”.
An initial draft of the COP26 deal released on Wednesday has met with mixed reactions from climate activists and experts.
It implicitly acknowledged that current commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 were insufficient to avert a climate catastrophe, and asked countries to review and strengthen their targets next year.
As the first for a UN climate conference, it also called for the massive state subsidies that support the oil, coal and gas industries to be phased out.
The final two days of negotiations are likely to be fierce.
The conference’s host, Britain, says the goal is to “keep alive” hopes of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, which is still is far out of reach under current national commitments to reduce emissions.
The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement legally required its signatories to keep the increase “well below” 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) this century, and to “continue efforts” to keep it below 1.5C. to hold.
Since then, there has been mounting scientific evidence that crossing the 1.5°C threshold would cause significantly greater sea level rises, floods, droughts, wildfires and storms than the current ones, with irreversible consequences.
On Tuesday, the research group Climate Action Tracker said all national commitments to date to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, if fulfilled, will raise the Earth’s temperature by 2.4°C by 2100.
Greenpeace dismissed the draft as an inadequate response to the climate crisis, calling it “a polite request that countries might do more next year”.
The first draft evades poorer countries’ demands for guarantees that rich countries provide much more money to help them curb emissions and deal with the effects of rising temperatures – one of the most controversial issues.
Poor countries are pushing for stricter rules on future financing after rich countries failed to deliver on their 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, and now expect to deliver it three years late.
The final text of the COP26 meeting will not be legally binding, but will bear the political weight of the nearly 200 countries that have signed the Paris Agreement.
Pope Francis said in a letter to Scottish Catholics that he regretted not being able to attend the opening of COP26.
“Time is running out,” he said. “This opportunity must not be lost or we must face God’s judgment for not being faithful stewards of the world he has entrusted to our care.”
(additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Bhargav Acharya; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Alexander Smith)