The Necessary But Insufficient US-China Declaration at COP26
Yesterday in a surprise announcement at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, the United States and China introduced a shared pledge to boost their cooperation on climate change. The jointly unveiled U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s commits both countries to a series of actions related to their diplomatic collaboration on the climate crisis. Chief among them are new commitments on methane reduction, technology sharing, and the revival of a working group meant to encourage further dialogue.
The announcement comes at an opportune time for the conference. Since its commencement late last month, COP26 has been marred by tensions between the world’s major emitters. Russian President Vladimir Putin pre-emptively chose not to attend, as did Chinese President Xi Jinping, the latter prompting a rebuke from the American government.
There remains a widening fault line in diplomatic discussions over the promise by developed countries to finance $100 billion a year to developing countries’ green transitions starting in 2020, while more aggressive Nationally Determined Contribution plans have yet to be proposed by several major emitters. Meanwhile, in a large protest not far from the committee halls earlier this week, Greta Thunberg pre-emptively declared the conference to be a failure.
Now with a surprise agreement between the world’s two largest emitters, hopes for COP26 have markedly improved. The pledge announcement ‘sent a jolt through the conference venue,’ with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declaring the agreement to be “an important step in the right direction”. For his part, U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry in his speech to reporters branded it as a key “roadmap for present and future collaboration” between the two countries. It will no doubt be seen as a highlight of the conference.
On its face the agreement is a major win in and of itself. In light of the increasingly poor ties between China and the U.S. over issues like COVID, genocide allegations over the Uighurs, and the fate of Taiwan, any collective action at this level is a positive development. Far from adding climate action to their list of diplomatic disagreements, the U.S. and China revealed they have been closely collaborating for months in frequent behind the scenes meetings.
However, within the broader context of climate diplomacy over the last decade and closer examination of the text itself, today’s fanfare may be somewhat less deserved. This is not the first joint declaration on climate that the U.S. and China have made, nor is it considered to be the most consequential one. In 2014 the two countries came to a very similar agreement in the lead up to the Paris Climate Conference, wherein China committed to ceasing its emissions growth by 2030. Though the Trump Administration subsequently withdrew from the agreement, it was a huge victory on the part of the U.S. to commit China to an emissions deadline.
The only tangible new commitment in yesterday’s declaration is China’s agreement to develop a ‘national plan’ to reduce methane emissions. And even that is to be undertaken without joining the larger global methane agreement led by the U.S. In the text the United States also repeated its April 2021 pledge to “reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035,” while China posited a similar plan to ‘phase down’ coal consumption during the 15th Five Year Plan.
Both of these commitments fall under the umbrella of overall emissions targets however, which neither country offered updates to. China did not elaborate on its previous goal to peak its overall emissions by 2030. The country is still deemed highly insufficient at meeting its goals according to the Climate Action Tracker, and its Nationally Determined Contribution plan under the Paris Agreement remains similarly unchanged. It is difficult to see how this agreement will lead to a change in overall emissions from either country beyond what they are currently projected towards.
Most observers are focused on this lack of new commitments. Byford Tsang, a China policy analyst for E3G, a European think tank, was cautious. “It’s a good sign that the world’s two biggest emitters can actually work together to face the biggest crisis of humanity” he says, “but there’s not a lot of meat there after the methane stuff”.
Indeed, the text of the agreement reads like a classic soft diplomatic declaration. There’s an abundance of recognizing, recalling, and ‘intents to cooperate’ on various climate goals, but few strong changes. In addition, while it carries an acknowledgement of the controversial $100 billion a year in climate aid promised to developing countries (which remains unmet), it does not mention new mechanisms for that pledge to be met.
Still, other observers are upbeat about the outcome of the announcement in spite of its lack of clarity. Speaking to the Guardian, U.S.-China expert Thom Woodroofe claimed that “while [the agreement] is not a game changer in the way the 2014 US-China climate deal was, in many ways it’s just as much of a step forward given the geopolitical state of the relationship”. Moreover, he said, the new deal indicates that “the intense level of US-China dialogue on climate can now begin to translate into cooperation.”
As the world’s two largest emitters, the U.S. and China could exacerbate the climate crisis simply by not working in tandem. With that in mind, a renewed agreement to foster collaboration between the two countries is a crucial step in the climate fight. This fact alone is cause for optimism. The two nations have demonstrated their willingness to work together on the climate crisis in the face of other contentious issues existing between them.