China – US cooperation a step in the right direction, but both countries still have a long way to go
A deal between the world’s two biggest polluters, timed to coincide with a critical phase in in these climate talks, is a major development.
Sure, the deal does little right now to move the global temperature dial away from 2.4 degrees of future warming. But it does move the two biggest players in these talks closer together.
The optimistic scenario is that China and the US working together on reducing emissions “in the 2020s” sends a very powerful signal to other economies that fossil fuels are history – and sooner than you thought.
Countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, which historically have obfuscated progress on cutting emissions may feel more isolated by the move. Others, looking for more encouragement to move faster may have just got it.
One of the more concrete parts of the deal is China joining the US in promising to reduce its methane emissions. Methane is up to 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.
Reducing methane from Chinese coal mines alone would make a small but meaningful difference to its emissions on very short timescales.
The US is already investing in technology to reduce emissions from its coal mines – an opportunity for technological cooperation between the two.
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China also said it would “phase down” coal use under its 15th 5 Year Plan (starting 2025) and make efforts to accelerate that effort. This is another small, but important step. China had previously refused to improve on its 2030 target to “peak” its carbon emissions and this is the first concrete statement that it might be prepared to do so.
It’s fair to ask what the US is doing in return. It had already made commitments to reduce methane and phase out carbon emissions in its electricity sector by 2035.
While China didn’t say it explicitly today, their special envoy on climate Xie Zhenhua has previously hinted at what they want: to see the US follow through on its fine talk around cutting emissions and making money available to help developing countries adapt to changing climate.
To keep his half of the bargain, John Kerry, who has worked with his Chinese counterpart for more than a decade, will need President Biden to pass his Build Back Better Bill and find more money for the climate vulnerable.
Before leaving Glasgow last week, President Joe Biden accused China of “walking away” from its obligations to the planet’s climate.
For days talk at the whether his parting shot would damage a history of quiet diplomacy between the two countries around issue of global warming. That anxiety was clearly misplaced.
But now China, the US and the 195 other countries represented here need to agree a better deal carbon reductions. This summit has certainly made progress, but in terms of reducing global warming to 1.5 degrees it can’t be called a success.
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