The US and China jolted the United Nations climate summit here with a surprise announcement on November 10, pledging the two countries would work together to slow global warming during this decade and ensure that the Glasgow talks result in meaningful progress. The world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters said they would take “enhanced climate actions” to meet the central goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord, limiting warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) beyond preindustrial levels, and if possible, not to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius. Still, the declaration was short on firm deadlines or specific commitments, and parts of it restated policies both nations had outlined in a statement in April of 2021. To try to keep those temperature limits “within reach,” Chinese and American leaders agreed to jointly “raise ambition in the 2020s” and said they would boost clean energy, combat deforestation and curb emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
The US and China, plus other major emitters such as the European Union, have come under fire in recent days for not yet delivering on some of the lofty rhetoric their leaders showcased last week. But many leaders have demonstrated a willingness during COP26 to go further than they have before, as shown by a new draft of the agreement conference president Alok Sharma released barely 12 hours before the US-China declaration came out. The draft, which Sharma said he hoped would be signed by the end of the week, proposed a breakthrough not seen in three decades of U.N. climate negotiations: an explicit acknowledgment that nations must phase out coal-burning faster and stop subsidizing fossil fuels. “It’s fossil fuels that cause climate change,” said Mohamed Adow, director of the Kenya-based think tank Power Shift Africa. “Explicitly mentioning it gets on the path to addressing it.”
Many nations have come under scrutiny at the summit, but few have faced closer examination than the US and China. Speaking before US Climate Change Envoy and former Secretary of State John Kerry at an unannounced news conference, Chinese special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said that as superpowers, the two countries have a special obligation to work together on keeping the world a peaceful and sustainable place. “We need to think big and be responsible,” Xie said, adding, “We both see that the challenge of climate change is an existential and severe one.” He acknowledged that “both sides recognize there is a gap between the current efforts and the Paris agreement goals.”
Both envoys on November 10 said the joint declaration was a product of nearly three dozen negotiating sessions over the year. While many of those meetings were virtual, US and Chinese diplomats also had face-to-face talks in China, London, and during the Glasgow summit. The declaration also marked a payoff for the men who announced it. John Kerry has spent this year pursuing extensive personal diplomacy, and he has broken with other Biden aides to advocate robust engagement with China on climate issues. Meanwhile, Xie, a veteran Chinese climate negotiator who led his delegation at previous talks in Copenhagen and Paris, came out of retirement to manage China’s climate diplomacy in the run-up to the high-profile talks in Glasgow.
The news drew various reactions, from outright praise to skepticism over whether the agreement would lead to new and concrete action. “Tackling the climate crisis requires international cooperation and solidarity, and this is an important step in the right direction,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted. “This is a challenge which transcends politics,” tweeted the EU’s top climate envoy, Frans Timmermans. “Bilateral cooperation between the two biggest global emitters should boost negotiations at #COP26.” Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that having the US and China on the same page on climate change trumps having them at odds. But, he added in a statement, if the world is to meet the goals it set six years ago in Paris, “we urgently need to see commitments to cooperate translate into bolder climate targets and credible delivery.”
China and the US, which together account for about 40 percent of the world’s emissions, are central to any international accord on climate change. The two nations have joined forces before with outsize influence, most notably when President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping forged a similar partnership a year before the Paris climate accord, helping to make that landmark pact a reality.