The United States and China committed on Wednesday in a rare and unexpected joint statement to work closely on climate change for this decade, which will energize the final days of the UN summit in Scotland.
The two largest economies in the world declared their intention to “work together individually, jointly and with other countries according to the different national circumstances in this crucial decade in order to strengthen and accelerate climate protection and cooperation,” the statement reads.
US climate ambassador John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua brokered the agreement and both made it known in separate press conferences. Kerry called the agreement on Twitter “a step in the right direction, a sign of progress and a solid foundation for further climate cooperation between our two countries”.
Countries said they are working together on deforestation and will hold a bilateral meeting next year on methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.
The joint statement was otherwise poorly detailed and mainly reaffirmed earlier goals such as ending overseas coal financing and maintaining the 2015 Paris Agreement target of limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius.
But the commitment still gives the summit a boost by showing that the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – China – was still involved.
This is China’s biggest move so far at the conference, where Beijing officials did not have a large attendance and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not appear.
The statement came when China was experiencing a major political setback by largely shrugging off the COP26 summit in Scotland, which scientists identified as the last and best chance to avert the worst of global warming. President Joe Biden called Xi’s decision to skip the conference “a big mistake” in his closing press conference during a two-day stop at the summit.
“The fact that China is understandably trying to assert a new role in the world as a world leader doesn’t show up? Come on, ”said Biden.
Kerry said in a recent interview with NBC News in Glasgow that it would have been better for Xi to attend the summit, but said he had productive conversations with subordinate Chinese officials.
“The door is not closed at this point,” said Kerry of the cooperation with China. “And I really think the key is to instill everyone’s willpower to go further and do more than they thought possible.”
The absence of several high-ranking officials from the world’s largest polluter had made the conference in Glasgow, Scotland, pessimistic. Wednesday’s promise to the US – the second largest polluter – appeared to be aimed at reassuring other participants that the two countries whose actions will determine the success or failure of climate change efforts were more aligned than not.
Nevertheless, China has not signed the global methane pledge brokered by the US and the EU in Glasgow to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by 30 percent by the end of the decade. China also disappointed the climate hawks by refusing to increase its emissions reduction target. Beijing aims to be carbon neutral by 2060 – a decade after the US target.
Environmental groups in the US praised the joint statement while warning that the real test will be whether written commitments are put into practice. John Podesta, chairman of the left-wing Center for American Progress, said, “Our future looks better today.”
Natural Resources Defense Council President Manish Bapna described the joint statement as “good news.”
“The commitment to strengthen clean energy, methane and deforestation cooperation between the two largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters is a welcome step forward,” said Bapna. “But if we want to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, we urgently need to ensure that the commitments to cooperation are reflected in bolder climate goals and credible implementation.”