‘Existential crisis’: United States and China stun COP26 with joint climate change pact

Talking points

  • The US and China will work together on emissions reductions and an accelerated phase-out of unabated coal, however timelines were not listed.
  • China and the US have also reached consensus over 2030 emissions targets. 
  • The surprise announcement is a dramatic boost to the ongoing negotiations between nations at COP26.

Glasgow: China and the United States have unveiled a shock new pact at the Glasgow climate talks, declaring global warming an existential crisis which demands co-operation between the superpowers.

In a boost to the flagging COP26 talks and sign of a possible thawing in the fractured relationship between both countries, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and his US counterpart John Kerry stunned observers by unveiling the joint declaration pledging tougher action this decade.

The agreement between the world’s two largest emitters was negotiated in secret for months during about 30 virtual meetings and negotiation sessions in Shanghai, London and Washington before final terms were settled in Glasgow on Wednesday night local-time.

China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, speaks at the COP26 climate change conference.Credit:Getty

“Co-operation is the only choice for both China and the United States,” Xie told reporters via a translator.

“By working together, our two countries can achieve many important things that are beneficial not only to our two countries, but to the world as a whole. As two major powers in the world, China and the US shoulders special international responsibilities and obligations.

“We need to think big and feel responsible. We need to work… hard to promote world peace and development. We need to actively address climate change through cooperation, bringing benefits to both our two peoples and peoples around the world.”

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will hold a virtual summit before the end of the year.Credit:AFR

The announcement appeared to take Britain, the host of the COP26 summit, by surprise given Prime Minister Boris Johnson had only hours earlier warned momentum at the talks was slowing.

The joint declaration was released just a week after US President Joe Biden attacked Chinese President Xi Jinping for not attending the summit in person, describing it as a “big mistake”.

“The rest of the world is going to look to China and say, ‘what value added are they providing?’,” Biden said last week. “They’ve lost the ability to influence the people around the world and all the people here at COP.”

The document released on Wednesday promises the US and China will work together on emissions reductions and an accelerated phase-out of unabated coal, however timelines were not listed.

John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, said teams from the US and China had worked together on the plan for months.Credit:AP

The statement also binds China to tackle damaging methane emissions and deforestation, while both countries have agreed to share technology and expertise on clean energy, decarbonisation and electrification.

Crucially, the statement notes both countries are committed to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees and conceded there was a “gap” between current policies and meeting that core target.

Xie described climate change as an “existential crisis” and said agreement between the US and China on how to deal with global warming far outweighed their differences on the issue.

Kerry, a former US secretary of state under Barack Obama, framed the surprise agreement as much-needed momentum for the COP26 talks.

“The two largest economies in the world have agreed to work together to raise climate ambition in this decisive decade,” Kerry told reporters in Glasgow.

“Our teams have worked together for months, and we have worked in good faith. We have found common ground.”

Kerry described the joint-declaration, titled the China-US Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, as a “roadmap for our present and future collaboration” on climate change.

“It declares specifically and identifies the need to accelerate the transition to a global net-zero economy,” Kerry said.

“Secondly, it commits to a series of important actions, not out in the long term but now, in this decade where it’s needed.

“We could leave [Glasgow] on Friday not working together, the world wondering where the future is going. Or we can leave here with people working together in order to raise the ambition and move down a better road.

“What President Biden wanted to do, and President Xi agreed we should do, is join together to work at trying to solve this. And I am convinced that’s a better road to pursue.”

Xie and Kerry noted that the US had developed a plan to reduce methane emissions and said China would follow suit.

“Climate change is a common challenge faced by humanity. It bears on the wellbeing of future generations,” Xie said.

“Climate change is becoming increasingly urgent and severe.”

Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement and chief executive officer of the European Climate Foundation, said the joint declaration proved co-operation on climate was possible.

“The methane and forests commitments are good news, now they must co-operate on ensuring an ambitious outcome to COP26,” she said.

“That means putting us on track to 1.5 degrees and delivering the vital support needed to those most vulnerable. The success of that cooperation will be judged on the outcome of this vital meeting.”

Bernice Lee, the research director at the Chatham House think tank in London, also sounded a note of caution.

“It can only be good news that the US and China are working closely on climate change and slashing methane emissions,” Lee said.

“Details remain patchy but this declaration should dissolve any fears that US-China tensions will stand in the way of success at COP26. 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 degree-aligned deal here in Glasgow.”

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