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US and China pledge co-operation over ‘existential’ climate crisis

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The US and China made a rare joint declaration to co-operate on climate change, which the Chinese special envoy to the UN COP26 summit described as an “existential crisis”.

In a high-stakes move during the final days of the summit, the Chinese and US climate envoys indicated they had found common ground.

“We both see that the challenge of climate change is an existential and severe one,” said Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua. “In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the US than there is disagreement.”

The US’s John Kerry said the two countries had worked “in good faith” and found a shared interest in success at COP26. “Now the two largest economies in the world have agreed to work together to raise climate ambition in this decisive decade,” said Kerry.

The US-China joint statement sends a political signal to other nations that the world’s two biggest emitters will push for a strong final outcome at the COP, even as negotiators are bogged down in late-night wrangling in the last days of the two-week summit.

Key outstanding issues include the rules for a global carbon market, the format for countries to report their emissions, and the level of climate-related financial assistance provided by rich countries to developing countries.

The US-China statement contained little in the way of new emissions commitments, other than China stating that it would start to address its methane emissions. Cutting down on methane, a potent warming gas, has been a key US priority at COP26, though China did not goes as far as to join the US-EU pact to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

Nevertheless, it represents a detente after the US and China seemed at loggerheads last week, when China said it was not given the opportunity to make a video statement at the gathering of world leaders and US President Joe Biden complained that China “didn’t show up” in Glasgow.

The fine print of the joint statement also suggests the two sides have found agreement on some of the outstanding issues in the negotiations — such as setting five-year climate targets rather than 10-year ones.

At the same time, negotiators say China has shifted its position and is now supporting a key clause in the COP “cover text”, that urges countries to update their emission targets by the end of 2022.

As the 197 countries that approved the 2015 Paris climate accord struggle to reach consensus by the Friday deadline on the rules for implementing that pact, observers said the US-China declaration could give a boost to the talks.

Nick Mabey, chief executive at E3G, an independent European think-tank, said the declaration “puts the US and China on the hook” for the outcome of the Glasgow summit.

“It’s quite politically showy, for a COP,” said Mabey. “It is a high-showmanship decision, to go for a joint press conference, in the penultimate days of negotiation.”

In the statement, both the US and China said they would continue to discuss concrete and pragmatic actions in the 2020s to reduce emissions.

Beijing has in the past raised questions about the ability of the US to deliver on its big climate targets, particularly as the Biden administration has been unable to pass key climate legislation.

The US has previously urged China to cut emissions sooner. Beijing’s target is for emissions to peak “before 2030”.

In a press conference on Wednesday night, Kerry drew an analogy with the nuclear arms pact struck between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, pointing out that both the US and China stand to gain from co-operating on cutting emissions.

“We cannot reach our goals unless all of us work together,” Kerry said. “We need to raise ambition, and we need to take action in this decisive decade.”

While both sides praised the pact, there was one small aspect that already led to apologies on Wednesday evening. The Chinese envoy ran 20 minutes longer than his agreed time on stage, keeping Kerry waiting on the sidelines. “Sorry about that,” said Xie.

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