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COP26: US-China Joint Declaration Pledges Enhanced Cooperation to Tackle Climate Change

Hours after the COP26 draft agreement was first released, the US and China surprised the international community by publicly pledging to work jointly on cutting down their respective greenhouse gas emissions.
COP26: US-China Joint Declaration Pledges Enhanced Cooperation to Tackle Climate Change
The Great Wall of China, figuratively blocking system change - Credit to Johannes Plenio

By Xi Yu

The joint declaration came as a shock amidst the ongoing technology war between D.C. and Beijing, which began under the Trump Administration. Chinese special envoy, Zhenhua Xie, emphasising the change in approach, commented, “In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the US than there is disagreement.”

A case of more 'blah blah blah'? Many observers at COP26 agree it is.

Under the declaration, both countries reiterated key commitments mentioned in the COP26 agreement, including strengthening domestic emission caps, joint efforts to complete the global energy transition, and acknowledging the importance of financial support for developing nations. The text further mentions Biden’s national action plan to reduce methane emissions by 30% by the end of 2030, which had been announced earlier during the Glasgow summit.

Scarred Earth - Yuqia Coal Mine, Qinghai Province, China - Credit to Darmau Lee

China added to the momentum, pledging to 'phase down' its coal consumption as part of its five-year plan policy. For context, Beijing had previously committed to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, in September 2020.

This joint declaration could signal a paradigm shift for policies, not only for both countries, but also for the rest of the world. The US and China annually account for approximately 40% of the total volume of global carbon emissions and have historically been known to push back against harsh top-down climate change regulations. Describing the agreement, John Kerry compared the Glasgow joint declaration to the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev which prompted the nuclear disarmament process.

Coal use grows annually - Credit to the International Energy Agency

As with the COP26 agreement, the joint declaration provides no precise timeline nor benchmarks to which either government may be held accountable in the future. Instead, the declaration merely serves as a renewal of vows between Washington and Beijing to address the urgency of climate change, a phenomenon about which scientists have been warning the world since the 1990s.

It is no surprise that the declaration comes off as redundant for some. Back in 2014, Obama and President Xi had announced a joint collaboration on the development of green technologies and renewable energy. One can only hope that this announcement will result in both concrete domestic and bilateral actions so that other countries will stop using the US and China’s inaction as an excuse not to fulfil their own obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Ex-President Obama addresses COP26, counterpointing global pledge optimism.

However, the most sceptical amongst us will view this declaration as a tool to reassure the market and boost investments between the two countries. During the final hours of negotiations in Glasgow, China and India backed Iran, requesting that a provision in the final COP26 agreement concerning the use of coal be changed from a clear “phase out” to a more ambiguous “phase-down [of] unabated coal”.

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