An Ambitious U.S.-China Statement Galvanizes the Glasgow Summit

China's representative on climate change, Xie Zhenhua.

China's representative on climate change, Xie Zhenhua. Tim Hammond / No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr

Delegates in Glasgow are applauding a joint statement from the United States and China delegations made on Wednesday evening that they believe can galvanize countries to up their game in the final hours of the conference. The “joint declaration on enhancing climate action in the 2020s” puts to one side the two countries’ mid-century commitments to net-zero emissions and instead focuses on the near-term action needed to drag down emissions during this decade.

WWF’s climate policy analyst Genevieve Maricle says it offers “new hope” for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). The five-page U.S.-China statement contains no new emissions commitments, but it lays out a swath of cooperative measures between the two emissions giants — some starting within a few weeks — on developing, deploying, and regulating low-carbon technologies, including what many regard as geoengineering.

Such cooperation, if applied globally, could transform how the world goes about achieving the drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed in the coming decade.

The statement has been long in the making. The Chinese lead negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, said there have been 30 meetings between the two sides in the past 10 months. The statement does not change what the two countries are committed to on emissions in 2030. It does not even have much to say about the negotiations in Glasgow, the Paris Agreement, or the UN climate process, other than to nod broad approval. But even so, few doubt its importance. The U.S. and China together are responsible for more than 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It also marks a sharp diplomatic turnaround from the name-calling in Glasgow last week. Then, Joe Biden chided China’s president Xi Jinping for “not turning up,” leading Chinese delegates to remind their American colleagues of U.S. climate U-turns during the Trump administration.

But in launching the statement on Wednesday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said: “The two largest economies in the world have agreed to work together on emissions in this decisive decade … Cooperation is the only way to get this job done.”

The small print of the statement reads like a big agenda. The two countries have agreed to work together on “regulatory frameworks and environmental standards” for reducing CO2 emissions; on “green design” and steps toward a circular economy; on advancing renewables and extending electrification; and on the “deployment and application of technology such as CCUS and direct air capture.”

This last category of cooperation is controversial. CCUS stands for carbon capture, use, and storage, the proposed technology for removing carbon dioxide from industrial facilities and power station stacks for use as a feedstock or for geological burial. Direct-air capture is a system — still extremely expensive — for chemically removing the gas directly from the atmosphere. Critics see CCUS as a ruse to maintain fossil-fuel industries that should be consigned to history.

A working group will meet regularly to deliver “concrete actions” on all these topics, through joint projects and exchanges of ideas. In an openness sometimes missing from Chinese diplomacy, these exchanges will include “local governments, enterprises, think tanks, academics and other experts.”

Perhaps the most eye-catching item in the joint statement is on methane. It is the second most important greenhouse gas, whose short 10-year lifetime in the atmosphere means that cutting emissions can bring rapid temperature gains quickly.

Again, there is evidence of what a difference a week can make in climate diplomacy.

Earlier in the conference, China refused to sign up to a U.S.-sponsored international pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. But in Wednesday’s joint statement, it promised to launch its National Action Plan on Methane to match the U.S. project. China seems keen to get to work. The two countries promise to hold a meeting to discuss their joint methane plans “in the first half of 2022”.

Also potentially important is a joint commitment from the two countries to work together to “eliminate global illegal deforestation” through “effectively enforcing their respective laws on banning illegal imports” — a tacit recognition that to date the laws of both countries have often been ignored. Now we should expect a crackdown.

Despite the urgency of its language, and enthusiasm for early action, the joint statement is surprisingly silent on the calls in Glasgow for tougher country emissions targets. It ignores a call in the draft conference declaration, currently being circulated, for a revision of those nationally declared contributions (NDCs) next year; and it blindsides the pleas of some developing countries most at risk from climate change for annual reviews.

Instead, the joint statement simply remarks that ”both countries” will submit pledges on their 2035 emissions “in 2025.” Since the U.S. delegation has already indicated its support for annual NDC updates, this must reflect the known reluctance of Chinese chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua to make what he sees as token gestures on targets.

Many described the joint statement as a surprise. Perhaps more curious, however, was the timing — just before the close of the conference, rather at the beginning when it could have set the tone for the wider negotiations.

Most observers presume the odd timing arose because China wanted first to see clarity in the U.S. commitment with the passage into law of Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure budget. It includes money for many green energy projects and was finally passed by Congress after a long delay last Friday.

Still, the statement seems to represent an attempt to return to the harmonious relations on climate between China and the U.S. that characterized the later years of the Obama administration. The high moment was in 2014, when the two nations agreed to a bilateral accord on jointly curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, with China for the first time promising to peak emissions by 2030. Climate diplomats say that deal opened the door to the global agreement in Paris the following year. Optimists hope the urgency in the latest joint statement will be catching, and that the dialogues on the nitty-gritty of technology and regulation could be just as important as emissions targets.

“They have used stronger language than they’ve used before on the climate crisis,” said Aubrey Webson of Antigua and Barbuda, who chairs the 37-strong Alliance of Small Island States. “I think it will be helpful in making other countries come to the table quicker.”

Away from the bilateral deal of the Big Two, there was one important new announcement Wednesday: the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. Headed by Denmark and Costa Rica, it is the world’s first agreement to stop drilling and keep oil and gas in the ground. As yet it only has a handful of signatories — notably nuclear-powered France and hydro-powered Quebec. But it is an embarrassment in particular for British hosts, who are still issuing licenses for new oil exploration in the North Sea and declined to join.

Meanwhile, delegates report slow progress in negotiations. In particular, there are no reported breakthroughs on the crucial finance packages that will help developing nations to reduce their emissions, adapt to climate change, and receive compensation for the “loss and damage” resulting from it.

This continuing stand-off largely explains the muted response to the draft of a final conference statement circulated on Wednesday by the British hosts. “It needs to be strengthened,” said Webson. “We won’t get the ambition on emissions we need for 1.5 C if we don’t scale up the provision of finance.”

For many developing nations, existing commitments are conditional on receiving finance for the investment needed to reduce their emissions — for instance by shutting coal plants early. Those nations include India. The country’s media are reporting that its conference promise to start working towards net-zero emissions by 2070 may be dependent on up to a trillion dollars in climate finance.

Leaving aside finance issues, most environmentalists in Glasgow are quietly pleased by the draft text, however: For saying unambiguously that the goal is now to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C; for saying that requires emissions cuts of 45 percent by 2030; for mentioning the “c word” — that is, the need to phase out coal; and for committing countries to early upgrading of their NDCs.

As delegates prepare for overnight meetings to finalize the details, all eyes will be on whether these key provisions, along with commitments of more money, make it to the final agreed text.

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