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Climate Cooperation at COP26

2021-11-30
China’s Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua at COP26 [Photo Credit: Alastair Grant | Associated Press]
China’s Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua at COP26 [Photo Credit: Alastair Grant | Associated Press]

World leaders and representatives convened in Glasgow, Scotland earlier this month for the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties or COP26. The conference, which was held between October 31-November 12, was the first time since the signing of the Paris Accords in 2015 that committed countries gathered to renew their pledge to fight climate change and keep the global temperature below 1.5°C (2.7°F). The primary issues covered at the conference included climate finance, carbon markets, coal, and methane usage.

China’s Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua at COP26 [Photo Credit: Alastair Grant | Associated Press]

Ahead of the conference, President Xi Jinping announced that China would no longer be building coal-burning power plants overseas. This decision gave China credibility in its dedication to fighting climate change going into the COP26 summit, as coal is responsible for 46% of carbon emissions around the world. In 2021, China has not funded a single new coal project under the Belt and Road initiative. Following this announcement, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “accelerating the global phase-out of coal is the single most important step to keep the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”

COP26 served as a stage for cooperation between China and the U.S. in the fight against climate change, as both countries represent the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses and the largest climate polluters in the world. On November 10th, both countries announced a pledge titled the Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, signaling that despite geopolitical tensions, the two countries are still willing to work together on areas of mutual interest. The pledge outlines key planning points related to the reduction of CO2 emissions, methane gasses, and the halting of illegal deforestation.

Here are the key takeaways from the joint China-U.S. pledge:

  • Both countries committed to limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, “by taking enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s in the context of the Paris Agreement, with the aim of keeping the above temperature limit within reach and cooperating to identify and address related challenges and opportunities.”

  • China and the U.S. acknowledged that there is a gap between the set goals and current actions and that both individual and collective efforts need to be made in order to close this gap, “including accelerating the green and low-carbon transition and climate technology innovation.”

  • The pledge discusses the role that methane has played in rising global temperatures, and China and the U.S. plan to combat this by establishing respective action plans and holding a meeting in 2022 which will “focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane, including through standards to reduce methane from the fossil and waste sectors, as well as incentives and programs to reduce methane from the agricultural sector.”

To formulate this agreement, China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and U.S. envoy John Kerry met 30 times leading up to COP26, as well as several times while in Glasgow. According to Mr. Xie, “We both see the challenge of climate change as existential and a severe one. As two major powers in the world, China and the United States, we need to take our due responsibility and work together and work with others in the spirit of cooperation to address climate change.” This announcement was met with praise from diplomats and world leaders and is being welcomed as a step in the right direction by the two players with the highest capability to fight climate change.

President Xi and President Biden meet for a virtual summit on November 15, following COP 26 [Photo Credit: Doug Mills | The New York Times]

Following the conference, President Xi and President Biden met in a virtual summit on November 15 to address topics like trade, Taiwan, and human rights. The two leaders discussed how to best navigate disagreements and avoid any potential conflict. Climate change diplomacy is allowing the U.S. and China to work together in new ways, as the summit meeting has already seen positive effects. A clear example of diplomatic improvements is the mutual agreement to allow journalists back into one another countries in an extended capacity. According to Andrew Mertha, the director of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) China Global Research Center at the Johns Hopkins University, “the summit signals a healthier new relationship that represents the closest the two countries have come to standing on an equal footing, at least optically.”

The U.S. and China have shown willingness to collaborate and cooperate to achieve global climate goals, even amongst political disagreements, and the progress shown throughout November is just the beginning.

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