Wednesday evening saw one of the most surprising developments during COP26, when giant emitters and political contenders US and China announced a joint agreement to enhance climate action. The deal breaks the trenches in Glasgow and could boost the odds for a positive outcome at COP26, and potentially also for climate action in the years to come.
The US-China deal was presented with short notice during two consecutive press conferences by US climate envoy and former secretary of state John Kerry and China’s climate envoy and former climate minister Xie Zhenhua.
According to Kerry and Zhenhua, US and China have worked on the agreement for ten months, during some 30 virtual meetings since the beginning of the year. The 16-point agreement covers a number of areas where the two global top emitters and major economies will cooperate in order to enhance ambitions and accelerate climate action, from deployment of renewables and electrification to CCS and slashing methane emissions.
The deal underlines the importance of rapidly closing the ambition gap in order to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep the 1.5-degree target alive. The text reiterates the ambition of the Biden administration to make US electricity “100% carbon pollution-free” by 2035, while China promises to “phase down coal consumption during the 15th Five Year Plan and make best efforts to accelerate this work.” The 15th Five Year Plan means the period from 2026-2030, indicating that China seems to count on peaking coal emissions by 2025 and reduce them thereafter. The two countries also say that they intend to establish a “Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s.”
Views on the deal are split between observers, with some underlying it’s importance as a potential game changer, while others view it as a negotiating spectacle. Many of the items in the joint declaration were present already in a statement made by China and the US when Kerry and Zhenhua met in Beijing in April, while other parts, as the plan to slash methane emissions, are new and more elaborated. The deal was first handed out as a simple Google-document after the press conferences, giving the impression of an event not planned for a long time.
The deal includes several statements about the COP26 negotiations, such as to “pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C” and “taking ambitious action during this critical decade to keep the above temperature limit within reach, including as necessary communicating or updating 2030 NDCs and long-term strategies”. The two countries also state that they will “work cooperatively to complete at COP 26 the implementing arrangements (“rulebook”) for Articles 6 and 13 of the Paris Agreement, as well as common time frames for NDCs.” Both countries say that they “intend to communicate 2035 NDCs in 2025”. Nothing concrete, however, is mentioned on crucial issues such as ramping up finance for developing countries.
While the ‘Glasgow Declaration’ to some extent is similar to previous statements issued by the two countries, it is important to not underestimate the potential impact on the negotiations this new statement may have in the coming days, says Jens Ergon, PhD student at CCL, Uppsala University. A strong US-China collaboration could boost the climate negotiations and bring further emissions reductions in the two giant economies during the coming years. That is crucial for achieving the Paris goals and keep the 1.5 degree target alive, he adds.
The first key test for the renewed cooperation between the two countries will be the final days in Glasgow. So far, the two countries have belonged to coalitions with opposing views on many make-or-break items. If the collaboration between US and China is grounded, the chances for a successful outcome increase substantially.
Some observers also hope that the deal might soften the hardened diplomatic relations between the two major powers. Zhenhua does not belong to the hardline camp around Xi Jinping, and is generally considered a progressive force in the countries’ climate efforts. Kerry and Zhenhua were heavily involved in striking the deal between the US and China in the uprunning towards the Paris Agreement. The deal turned out to be pivotal then, and could very well have large impacts this time around as well.