US and China Surprise Breakthrough on Climate Change

US and China Surprise Breakthrough on Climate Change

Before heading into COP26, public concern was palpable due to the stand-off between the United States and China over climate change. SPEC John Kerry spent hundreds of hours with China's Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua, focused on encouraging China to reduce its reliance on coal, and stop financing new coal projects overseas. That effort got a boost at the UN General Assembly in September, when President Xi indicated that China would remove coal from its new Belt and Road Initiative for overseas development. But hopes for a bigger breakthrough with the super-emitting superpower were dampened when Xi announced he'd only join the Glasgow conference by written statement.

All of this happened against a backdrop of years of tensions. Some worried climate advocates in the US would leverage a tough China policy for climate progress, while others worried the opposite would be true -- that progress would be undermined by tensions between the nations. Throughout, SPEC Kerry had one key message: you can't solve climate without greater ambition from China, the world's largest polluter.

But Wednesday, just three days shy of COP26 coming to a close, the US and China -- the world's two biggest polluters -- issued a heavily negotiated joint statement on climate change.

The declaration pledges action on reducing methane emissions (a major cause of short-term warming), stopping deforestation, and other environmental concerns. China has also committed to cutting coal use in their 15-year plan, and strengthening their National Determined Contributions (NDC).

As SPEC John Kerry put it: "Together we set out our support for a successful COP26, including certain elements which will promote ambition. Every step matters right now, and we have a long journey ahead of us."

Why this Matters

There's a long history of ups and downs in the US-China climate dynamic. A combative relationship between the two nations inhibited the success of the Kyoto Protocol -- China wasn't obliged to join, and the US refused to sign without China. But in 2015, cooperation between the US and China helped create momentum for the Paris Agreement, a huge step forward in the fight against climate change.

EU Climate Policy Chief Frans Timmermans told Reuters: "It's really encouraging to see that those countries that were at odds in so many areas have found common ground on what is the biggest challenge humanity faces today. And it certainly helps us here at COP to come to an agreement."

"Think Big and Be Responsible"

China's Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua refused to commit China to the Global Methane Pledge, nor did he sign on to any other major international agreements. Before this announcement, China had not made any major new pledges outside of its goal to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. But Wednesday’s joint statement suggests China's acknowledgement of the urgency of this issue.

The US announced a strategy for reducing methane, and the agreement states that China will also develop a national methane strategy by next year's COP27.

"We need to think big and be responsible," Xie said. "We need to actively address climate change and through cooperation, bring more benefit to both our two peoples and peoples around the world."