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COP26: US, China say climate efforts must “accelerate”

10 November 2021 Kevin Adler

In a joint framework issued at COP26 on 10 November, the US and Chinese governments reiterated past climate commitments, announced new priorities, and said they will update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) with new, tougher targets for 2035.

Calling the joint statement "a roadmap for our present and future collaboration on this crucial issue," US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said the document lays out how the world's two largest economies "will limit warming on this planet, and how we will take action here at the COP as well as in the years to come."

Topping the list is a commitment by China to limit methane emissions, in parallel with the US Methane Emissions Reduction Act, announced by US President Joe Biden in early November.

China did not join the Global Methane Pledge led by the US and EU in September, and it still hasn't. But in the new announcement, China said it will develop a comprehensive methane plan by COP27 next year, "aiming to achieve a significant effect on methane emissions control and reductions in the 2020s."

In a press conference on 10 November at COP26, Kerry emphasized the "urgent need" to accelerate emissions reductions and to do it as quickly as possible. International reports have indicated that GHG emissions globally must be reduced by about 45% by 2030 for the world to remain on track to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

"This commits us to a series of important actions … during this decade, when it's needed the most," Kerry said.

Speaking before Kerry, China's climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said the bilateral agreement contains "concrete measures" and "enhanced climate actions" by his country, but also sends a message to the world. "Both sides recognized that there is a gap between the current effort and the Paris Agreement goals, so we will jointly strengthen climate action and cooperation," he said.

Methane and CO2

As part of the pact, US and China said they will convene a meeting in the first half of 2022 "to focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane, including through standards to reduce methane from the fossil [fuel] and waste sectors, as well as incentives and programs to reduce methane from the agricultural sector."

Xie in his press conference affirmed that "China plans to develop a national methane plan," and that it is interested in joint research with the US in this area.

Coal-fired electricity generation is similarly targeted in the plan as part of the program to reduce overall CO2 emissions. "The two sides recall their respective commitments regarding the elimination of support for unabated international thermal coal power generation," the statement said.

Kerry later said that the statement emphasizes "the need to phase down coal in this decade as fast as is achievable."

In response to a reporter's question about coal usage, which in October 2021 was reportedly twice that of October 2020, Kerry said that China will incorporate coal reduction as part of its 15th Five-Year Plan. Also, the US will share carbon capture, storage, and use technology to abate CO2 emissions.

Big picture

The US-China statement presents a big-picture view, and the details are lacking, pointed out analysts at IHS Markit. But that doesn't mean it's insignificant.

"It is not clear which aspects of this announcement are binding and which are aspirational and political," said Atul Arya. IHS Markit senior vice president, energy insight. "However, the fact that world's top two emitters have expressed a strong desire to cooperate and work together to address climate change is a significant message in itself."

Not only is China's commitment to incorporate the start of a coal phasedown in its 15th Five-Year Plan important, but Arya pointed out that the document mentions the global trading program known as Article 6, which is considered one of the linchpins of the COP26 meeting.

One way to think of it, added Conway Irwin, IHS Markit research and analysis senior director, is that cooperation between the two countries could increase, but China has not yet committed to altering the course it has laid out on aiming for carbon neutrality in 2060, not sooner.

A question to Kerry during his press conference brought that aspect to light, when he was asked about China not changing its plan to peak emissions in the year 2030, which is later than almost all other developing nations, many of which already are on a downward trajectory.

"President Xi [Jinping] has set a time frame for when he believes they can peak emissions," Kerry said. "We believe that China may well have peaked, and we presented that information [to them] in prior discussions. We wanted to make sure that when China begins that process, we can try to accelerate. And China accepted that—they will make their best efforts to accelerate phasing down."

Greenpeace was generally positive about the US-China statement, though it emphasized that such a deal is only the beginning of solving the climate crisis.

"Their statement recognizes that the 1.5C goal is at the heart of any credible climate plan, and they frame the 2020s as the decade where we need to see real action. Those things matter, especially from these two countries," Greenpeace Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said. "So, it's good to see these two at the table together, but if this reset is going to turn into a genuine breakthrough that builds confidence around the world, then they need to step up their level of ambition and their commitment to implementation. And that needs to start in Glasgow, where every country should be using the last two days of these talks to get the deal the world needs."

IHS Markit's Arya said that substance and signaling both matter. "Overall, the sentimental impact of the announcement will be more significant than any substantive changes in China's previously announced targets. It will also send an important message to the global leaders that, in spite of their differences, the US and China can work together on climate change. And that's a positive message to conclude COP26," he said.

Details

Looking more closely at the statement, it includes pledges that each country will create "regulatory frameworks and environmental standards related to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the 2020s" and "policies to encourage decarbonization and electrification of end-use sectors."

This will include a focus on maximizing the societal benefits of the clean energy transition, green design, and use of renewable resources.

Under the CO2 emissions angle, the countries said they will develop policies that continue to transform their power generation sectors through:

  • integration of high shares of low-cost intermittent renewable energy;
  • encouraging efficient balancing of electricity supply and demand across broad geographies;
  • integration of solar, storage, and other clean power solutions closer to electricity users, and;
  • installing energy efficiency policies and standards to reduce electricity waste.

The statement also said that both countries support the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use and will collaborate to eliminate illegal deforestation globally through enforcing their respective laws on banning illegal imports. 

Also, the countries said they "recognize the significance of adaptation in addressing the climate crisis … as well as the scaling up of financial and capacity-building support for adaptation in developing countries," and they support the $100-billion-a-year pledge by developed nations to help developing nations.

Finally, the two sides said they will establish a "Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s," which will meet regularly. Kerry said that his staff and their Chinese counterparts have met more than 30 times in-person and virtually since February.

Setting the table for future cooperation is a big part of the agreement, Kerry said. "On climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done. This is not a discretionary thing, frankly. This is science; math and physics dictate the road we have to travel," Kerry said.

Posted 10 November 2021 by Kevin Adler, Chief Editor

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