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US-China climate deal buoys COP26 summit - but not a 'turning point'

by Alister Doyle | @alisterdoyle | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 11 November 2021 14:38 GMT

The flags of the United States and China fly from a lamppost in the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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Despite agreeing to cooperate, including to reduce methane emissions, protect forests and phase out coal, it's not clear whether the two big emitters will work together to make COP26 a success

By Alister Doyle

GLASGOW, November 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A surprise deal between China and the United States to cooperate on climate change has brightened prospects for a deal at the COP26 climate summit - but is likely not enough to secure host Britain’s hopes for a “turning point for humanity”, analysts said.

In an unexpected turnaround, the two economic powerhouses - which together account for more than 40% of global carbon emissions - announced late Wednesday they would work on “enhanced climate actions” this decade.

Just last week in Glasgow, President Joe Biden had berated Chinese President Xi Jinping for making a “big mistake” by failing to attend.

In a declaration, the two nations committed to increase cooperation, including to reduce methane emissions, protect forests and phase out coal.

The unexpected reconciliation was widely hailed by delegates as clearing away the hurdle of broader U.S.-Chinese acrimony in Glasgow. The two-week summit is due to end on Friday.

Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a French architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement when Beijing and Washington worked together closely, hailed what she called “good news”.

But, she added, “the success of that cooperation will be judged on the outcome of this vital meeting”.

Glasgow is locked in disputes including over how to keep alive a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and raising finance for developing nations after rich countries fell short of a pledge to provide $100 billion a year by 2020, as well as rules for carbon markets.

“The litmus test is whether we see China and the U.S. working together to support an ambitious (COP26) text,” said Byford Tsang, a China expert at the London-based E3G think-tank.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a turning point” in Glasgow’s quest for greater ambition, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

‘CALM THE TEMPERATURE’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the United Nations in September that Glasgow should be a “turning point for humanity” to get on track for the toughest goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial times.

Average surface temperatures are already up about 1.1C and on track for a rise of 2.4C based on pledges for 2030, Climate Action Tracker, a European research group, said this week.

Such an increase will cause ever fiercer heatwaves, floods and a thaw of ice from Greenland to Antarctica that is pushing up rising seas.

Li Shuo, a China expert at Greenpeace, tweeted that the joint statement by the two nations “may help calm down the temperature in the rooms” at COP26 “but not in the real world”.

“It prevents the worst in U.S.-China climate engagement - a decoupling, but is far from saving the planet,” he added.

The China-U.S. accord was worked out by Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry and China’s Xie Zhenhua, in 30 meetings. Both men have known each other through many years of diplomacy.

But it is a shadow of a landmark accord reached in 2014 between the Obama administration and President Xi that put the two top emitters in lockstep with ambitious pledges to fight climate change. That deal was decisive to landing the Paris Agreement a year later.

In an updated climate pledge last month, China promised to make carbon dioxide emissions “peak before 2030”. That is only marginally more ambitious than what was a ground-breaking pledge in 2014 for a peak “around 2030” and “make best efforts to peak early”.

In the 2014 deal, torn up by former U.S. President Donald Trump who pulled out of the Paris accord, the United States pledged to cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. 

Biden pledged this year to cut emissions by 50-52% by 2030, but the goal depends on elusive U.S. climate legislation.

PARIS DILUTION?

Diego Pacheco, head of the Bolivian delegation who represents a group of 22 developing nations in Glasgow including China and India, welcomed the U.S.-China agreement to raise ambition at a news conference.

But he accused rich nations of trying to water down their responsibility to lead and make deep cuts in emissions. He said the rich were a threat to “Mother Earth” because they have historically emitted most carbon dioxide since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th  centuries.

“The issue is not really keeping alive 1.5 degrees - here the issue is keeping alive the Paris Agreement. There is an intention to dilute (it),” he said.

His group opposes a proposal for all nations to return with tougher emissions-cutting commitments by the end of 2022, which was outlined in a draft text in Glasgow on Wednesday as part of efforts to ratchet up pledges.

China’s greenhouse gas emissions, buoyed by a fast recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, are set to account for about 31% of the world total in 2021, according to the Global Carbon Project, more than double the 14% share of the United States.

U.S. emissions per capita - however - are almost double those of China’s.

Still, their deal clears one possible barrier to a successful outcome in Glasgow.

“This declaration should dissolve any fears that U.S.-China tensions will stand in the way of success at COP26,” said Bernice Lee, research director at London-based Chatham House think-tank. 

“The real test of Washington and Beijing is how hard they push for a 1.5C-aligned deal here in Glasgow," she added.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle, Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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