The US and China have committed to work together to combat climate change despite rising tensions between the two powers, boosting chances of global deal on emissions at a UN summit this summer.
John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, the climate envoys for the world’s two biggest economies, have vowed to co-operate “to tackle the climate crisis”, making a commitment to “concrete actions in the 2020s” to reduce emissions in line with the aims of the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“Both countries recall their historic contribution to the development, adoption, signature, and entry into force of the Paris Agreement through their leadership and collaboration,” they said in a joint statement.
The pledge, which follows two days of high-stakes meetings in Shanghai, is a signal that climate change could be a rare area of collaboration in a strained relationship. Washington has been highly critical of Beijing’s assertive policies on Taiwan and the South China Sea and over its approach to human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
“I think this is the first time, China has joined in saying it’s a crisis,” said Kerry, speaking to reporters in Seoul on Sunday. “The language is very strong . . . you can see we agreed on critical elements of where we have to go.”
US President Joe Biden’s climate policy has already departed sharply from that of his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration, bringing the US back into the Paris accord ahead of setting a new climate target for 2030.
Under the Paris deal, countries committed to limiting global warming to “well below” 2C, preferably about 1.5C, compared with pre-industrial levels.
Li Shuo, an energy policy officer at Greenpeace in Beijing, said the US-China statement, followed “difficult talks” and came “amid great geopolitical challenges”. But it should sharply increase the momentum on climate action globally.
“It is very important for the rest of the world to understand that at least on the issue of climate change the G2 are united again,” Li said.
He added: “We all know what could happen when these countries are aligned on this particular issue because we all saw that in the run-up to the Paris climate summit.”
Coal was a key topic of discussion — China is the world’s largest consumer of the fuel — but no specific new commitments were made in that area.
Kerry’s trip to China came ahead of a US summit this week, which has been billed as a showcase for Biden’s new climate policies, and as Beijing vies to be seen as a leader in global climate negotiations.
In the statement, the countries committed to co-operating in multilateral processes, including the upcoming COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow.
However, they stopped short of establishing a dedicated US-China working group on climate change, a suggestion that had been raised by the Chinese side during bilateral talks in Anchorage last month.
One critical issue is whether the two will agree to new emissions cuts in the near term, and the statement suggested progress on this.
“The United States and China will continue to discuss,” Kerry and Xie said.
The US will announce new climate targets this week at its summit. China has been under pressure to bring forward its peak emissions target — currently it aims to hit peak emissions before 2030 — and instead commit to doing that by the middle of this decade.
Edgare Kerkwijk, a board member of the Asia Wind Energy Association, said that while the US-China statement lacked detail, the joint promises will accelerate the world’s transition from fossil fuels.
“The probability that we will reach a more comprehensive climate agreement during the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow has grown significantly,” said Kerkwijk, adding: “It will be more difficult for smaller economies not to join the energy transition process.”
The meetings came against a backdrop of intensifying clashes between Washington and Beijing as the Biden administration maintained a tough posture towards China.
The US opposes Beijing’s actions to reduce the autonomy of Hong Kong and human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. It has also maintained pressure on technology companies with alleged links to China’s military.
In the latest flare up, China’s embassy in the US capital on Saturday criticised comments by Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga and Biden opposing an escalation in military activity near Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
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