COP26: China And US Sign Surprise Deal To Tackle Climate Crisis

US climate envoy John Kerry at the Climate Action is Ocean Action event at COP26 on November 5, 2021. COP26/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In a surprising development at COP26, the US and China have announced they are teaming up to tackle the climate crisis together. 

As the two biggest global emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, the agreement has been seen as a welcome move by many. Given the simmering geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers, the agreement has come as a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, some have warned that the pair need to now “walk the talk” and continue to push for further action.

The framework agreement was announced on Wednesday by US special presidential climate envoy John Kerry and China's special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. The crux of the agreement sees the two countries pledge to boost their efforts to cut emissions, edge away from fossil fuels, and increase climate action in the 2020s with the ultimate goal of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. 

Together, they aim to maximize "the societal benefits of the clean energy transition” and deliver carbon capture technology to actively remove greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. Part of the agreement also acknowledged that more needs to be done to eliminate global illegal deforestation and the banning of illegal imports.  

The ongoing climate conference in Glasgow has already received some criticism for not being ambitious or urgent enough, especially in regards to the shorter-term efforts that are desperately needed. Reassuringly, this new joint agreement does push for enhanced actions in the 2020s. However, many hurdles remain. Not only will both governments face resistance to the plans in their own countries, but they also must deliver on the promises. Some have also argued that their pledges, while welcome, still do not go far enough. 

“The climate crisis will only be solved if the US and China move toward the same goal of bringing emissions down in line with a 1.5°C trajectory as a matter of urgency,” Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International Executive Director, said in a statement.

“Their statement recognises that the 1.5°C goal is at the heart of any credible climate plan and they frame the 2020s as the decade where we need to see real action. Those things matter, especially from these two countries. But ultimately their statement falls short of the call by the climate-vulnerable countries demanding that nations come back to the table every year with greater ambition until the 1.5°C gap is closed,” continued Morgan.

Belinda Schäpe, an EU-China Climate Diplomacy Researcher at the climate think tank E3G, told IFLScience: "It is a welcome political signal that both countries recognise the urgency of the climate crisis in the declaration and commit to cooperate on this issue despite their tense bilateral relationship. This has the potential to deliver practical actions going forward, starting from the first meeting planned for the first half-year of 2022."

"The declaration also contains commitments for cooperation on energy, methane, and deforestation but these do not include any concrete new ambition from either countries," Schäpe noted. "The US and China must show now that they are serious and committed to the announcements made and support the delivery of a high ambition outcome in the negotiations and the cover decision text."

This article has been updated with quotes from Belinda Schäpe, a researcher at the climate think tank E3G.

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