The United States and China surprised the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Wednesday with a joint declaration to take action to limit global warming over the next decade.
The declaration came as delegates entered the final hours of negotiations to agree on a final text at the conference that will outline how the world will limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
China and the United States are the world’s two biggest polluters, and scientists say their future actions are critical in the fight against climate change. The absence of Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the summit last week was strongly criticized by U.S. President Joe Biden.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told reporters in Glasgow on Wednesday that the joint declaration builds on statements made by both countries in April.
“We also expressed a shared desire for success at this COP on mitigation, adaptation, support and, frankly, all of the key issues which will result in the world raising ambition and being able to address this crisis. Now, with this announcement, we’ve arrived at a new step, a road map for our present and future collaboration on this issue,” Kerry said at a press conference.
“The United States and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done. This is not a discretionary thing, frankly. This is science. It’s math and physics that dictate the road that we have to travel,” Kerry added.
China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, echoed those sentiments.
“Climate change is a challenge, a common challenge, faced by humanity,” Xie told reporters. “It bears on the well-being of future generations. Now, climate change is becoming increasingly urgent and severe, making it a future challenge into an existential crisis. In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the U.S. than divergence, making it an area with huge potential for our cooperation. We are two days away from the end of the Glasgow COP, so we hope that this joint declaration can make a China-U.S. contribution to the success of COP26.”
Among the joint pledges were cooperation on controlling methane emissions, tackling illegal deforestation, enhancing renewable energy generation and speeding up financial support for poorer nations. But the declaration did not include many specific dates or targets.
After the joint declaration, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted, “I welcome today’s agreement between China and the USA to work together to take more ambitious #ClimateAction in this decade. Tackling the climate crisis requires international cooperation and solidarity, and this is an important step in the right direction.”
Climate activists offered a cautious welcome to the declaration.
“This announcement comes at a critical moment at COP26 and offers new hope that with the support and backing of two of the world’s most critical voices, we may be able to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees,” Genevieve Maricle, director of U.S. climate policy action at the World Wildlife Fund, wrote in an email to VOA. “But we must also be clear-eyed about what is still required if the two countries are to deliver the emission reductions necessary in the next nine years. 1.5C-alignment will require a whole-of-economy response.”
The joint declaration has given new momentum to the negotiations as delegates try to agree on a final text, officially known as the “cover decision,” by the end of the conference on Friday. The text details how parties to the COP26 summit will limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C in Earth’s average temperatures above pre-industrial levels — the target agreed on at the Paris climate summit in 2015.
The first draft text of the decision, published Wednesday, urges countries to “revisit and strengthen” their targets on cutting emissions before the end of 2022. It says rich countries should go beyond the pledge to pay poorer nations $100 billion a year. The draft text calls on governments to phase out coal and fossil fuels, but with no fixed dates.
The COP26 host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urged delegates to “grasp the opportunity.”
“We’re now finding things are tough, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It doesn’t mean that we can’t keep 1.5 alive,” Johnson said. “I think with sufficient energy and commitment, and with leaders from around the world now ringing up their negotiators and asking them to move in the ways that they know they can move and should move, I still think we can achieve it. But I’m not going to pretend to you that it is by any means a done deal.”
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, told VOA that the language of the draft text was weak.
“This is not a plan to address the climate emergency. It’s a bit like a pledge and a wink and a hope,” Morgan said. “Countries need to commit to actually come back to increase and strengthen their targets and their actions. That’s clearly one thing. The text does include that coal will be phased out and fossil fuel subsidies will be phased out. I think optimally, you would have dates by which time they would be phased out, but it’s important that they’re there.”
Delegates are also negotiating how much — and quickly — richer nations should pay poorer countries to help them deal with the impact of climate change and de-carbonize their economies. While richer countries are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries tend to suffer greater impacts of climate change. A pledge first made in 2009 by richer nations to pay $100 billion annually — and renewed at the Paris climate summit in 2015 — has still not been fulfilled.
“It’s very frustrating to see countries that have spent six years conspicuously patting themselves on the back for signing that promissory note in Paris, quietly edging towards default now that vulnerable nations and future generations are demanding payment here now in Glasgow,” Johnson said Wednesday.