U.S. and China agree to cooperate on climate action, but details remain to be negotiated

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Despite an increasingly tense relationship, the U.S. and China agreed Saturday to work together to tackle global climate change, including by “raising ambition” for emissions cuts during the 2020s — a key goal of the Biden administration.

Why it matters: The joint communique released Saturday evening commits the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases to work together to keep the most ambitious temperature target contained in the Paris Climate Agreement viable by potentially taking additional emissions cuts prior to 2030.

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  • In addition, the document leaves open the possibility that the U.S. and China can act jointly on climate change while having strong disagreements on trade, technology, and national security issues, though how far this cooperation can extend remains to be seen.

Details: Ahead of negotiations in Shanghai between John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, and Xie Zhenhua, his Chinese counterpart, the State Department had worked to downplay expectations.

  • In fact, the participation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the White House’s virtual climate summit on April 22-23 has been in doubt.

  • But the document indicates China will participate in the summit, stating: “Both countries look forward to the US-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22/23. They share the Summit’s goal of raising global climate ambition on mitigation, adaptation…”

  • In addition, the document calls for both countries to move away from funding fossil fuel energy sources, and toward clean energy.

Yes, but: The document is lacking in specifics, including any new emissions targets from either country.

Driving the news: China is by far the world’s top current emitter of greenhouse gases, while the U.S. is the second-largest emitter. However, when viewed historically, the U.S. is the top contributor to global warming.

The big picture: Meanwhile, the world is well off track to meeting the goals of the Paris agreement, which calls for keeping global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and trying to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or. 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, relative to the preindustrial era.

  • Warming beyond these levels raises the odds of potentially catastrophic impacts, scientists warn.

  • Currently, the world is on track to warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius, or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100.

  • In order to meet the Paris targets, studies show, the world must begin slashing emissions prior to 2030.

Of note: China is a major user of coal-fired power plants, and there have been concerns that it has been taking a fossil fuel intensive approach to its Belt and Road Initiative involving many developing nations.

What they’re saying: Alden Meyer, a senior associate with the climate think tank E3G, told Axios that the joint statement “seems generally very positive,” but also notes many details remain to be worked out.

  • “It’s probably a very negotiated text, but it committed China in a sense to taking actions in the 2020s, which is the question people have been having since President Xi’s [2060] net-zero commitment last September — what will China do to accelerate action in this decade toward that net-zero goal,” he said.

  • Li Shuo, policy officer with Greenpeace East Asia, told Axios that the joint statement “highlights the unequivocal commitment of both the US and China to work together in addressing the climate crisis. It is a firm step towards cooperation amid great geopolitical challenges.

“The difficult meetings in Shanghai bore fruit. Let that move the politics closer to where science requires us to be.”

Catch up fast: Prior to the successful negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the U.S. struck a bilateral agreement with China to address emissions, paving the way for a more united front at the actual summit.

  • To date, China has pledged to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by over 65% by 2030 and boost the share of nonfossil fuels in energy consumption to roughly 25% by then.

  • It also aims to be carbon-neutral by 2060 and have its emissions peak before 2030.

The intrigue: Kerry’s visit, and the participation of Xie, who had been his counterpart in 2015 as well, demonstrated that the U.S. was trying to return to that formula.

Context: Much has changed since Paris was signed.

  • Global emissions have gone up, and the effects of climate change have become more obvious in the form of massive wildfires in the U.S. and Australia, melting glaciers and heat waves. And under President Trump, the U.S. abandoned the Paris agreement, only to rejoin it under Biden.

What to watch: While the communique mentions cooperation in several key technological areas of clean energy, a big question is whether China will offer a firm commitment to a pre-2030 emissions reduction target at the White House summit.

Ben Geman contributed reporting.

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