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U.S. and China announce surprise climate agreement at COP26 summit

US special climate envoy, John Kerry, speaks during a joint China and US statement on a declaration enhancing climate action at the COP26 summit.
US special climate envoy, John Kerry, speaks during a joint China and US statement on a declaration enhancing climate action at the COP26 summit.

The United States and China — the world's top two greenhouse gas-emitting countries, which together account for about 40% of the world's annual carbon output — announced Wednesday they have agreed to cooperate on limiting emissions to address the global climate crisis.

The agreement, announced at the United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, aims to accelerate emissions reductions toward the goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. That accord held governments worldwide responsible for emissions cuts that would keep the global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) relative to preindustrial times, with a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

"It's beneficial not only to our two countries but the world as a whole that two major powers in the world, China and the U.S., shoulder special international responsibilities and obligations," Chinese special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua told reporters at a news conference. "We need to think big and be responsible."

At a time when China and the U.S. are at odds over other international issues, the agreement declares an intent to take "concrete actions" on emissions reductions and limitations. The two countries would share policy and technology development, announce new national targets for 2035 by the year 2025 and revive a "multilateral" working group on climate change.

"I'm absolutely convinced that that is the fastest, best way to get China to move from where it is today," said U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry in an interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro.

China's special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, speaks during the joint China and US statement at the COP26 climate summit.
Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images
China's special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, speaks during the joint U.S.-China statement at the COP26 climate summit.

A joint pledge, but a lack of specificity

Kerry acknowledged that the new agreement in itself is not enough to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement, but he defended its ability to stimulate mutual accountability and action.

"It's the fastest we can get at this moment here in Glasgow, but it's the first time China and the United States have stood up — the two biggest emitters in the world — and said, 'We're going to work together to accelerate the reduction,' " Kerry said.

"Yesterday was bigger than some people think," he said separately.

Much of the language in the agreement remains unquantified. For instance, China pledges to draw down its coal consumption and to "make best efforts to accelerate this work."

Kerry said China's willingness to cooperate, its current state of emissions and its history of "outperforming its own goals" makes this agreement more ambitious than its critics realize. He also pointed out the importance of the agreement to reduce methane emissions. It is the first time the Chinese government has pledged to address the issue, and it's one the U.S. announced new rules for this month.

"If we've reached the goal that we have set for 30% reduction of methane by 2030," Kerry said, "that is the equivalent of taking all the cars in the world, all of the trucks in the world, all of the airplanes in the world, all ships in the world, down to zero. That's how big it is. That's what's on the table."

Kerry also expressed confidence that the terms of this agreement and COP26 would translate to action.

"The key to Glasgow is not the words here," he said. "It's the promises and goals that have been made and the implementation. And we're going to become an implementation force in the aftermath of this meeting."

The U.S. role in the global picture

Kerry also addressed criticism from representatives of nations that are among the most vulnerable to climate change, as well as questions about U.S. leadership on climate issues.

Developing nations have called for wealthy nations to uphold a 2009 pledge made at a U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, to channel $100 billion per year to less wealthy countries to help them adapt to climate change. Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate says that in 2021, that promise has not yet been delivered.

"And it's so unfair to countries on the front lines of a climate crisis that this climate finance has been delayed for more years," she told NPR this week.

"I hope she won't hold the Biden administration responsible for Donald Trump," Kerry responded. "The reason there hasn't been money in the last few years is Donald Trump shut it off — he pulled out of the Paris Agreement. But from the moment President Biden has come into office, he has been fixated on helping provide that money."

Kerry also said that his talks with the six largest banks in the U.S. and conversations with philanthropists and foundations would result in funding measured in the trillions of dollars.

Kerry also answered questions about the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass Biden's domestic spending plan, which includes funding to address climate change. He acknowledged that having completed legislation to show off "helps, no question" in international credibility, but expressed confidence that it would not hurt the negotiation process. He also predicted it would pass "in the next two weeks."

"I think the [climate] issue itself [is] so compelling that people are ready to respond to the actions people say they're willing to take," Kerry said. "And the United States, by the way, has pretty good bona fides on that. Because we've done what we've said we're going to do in terms of these things."

As the COP26 summit entered its final day, Kerry said he hoped for reasonable cooperation and consensus. He also spoke on the need to provide funding to address a world already being affected by climate change.

"We need to help countries adapt. There needs to be greater focus on adaptation," he said. "Yes, it does mean committing money ... money and technology and assistance. We're prepared to do that. We also need strong mitigation, because if you don't mitigate enough, you'll never be able to adapt your way out of this problem."

Kerry acknowledged the moral responsibility of the U.S. to provide solutions to climate change, given its history of contributing to the problem.

"And, yes, we have a fundamental moral obligation to do this," Kerry said. "Because we are the richest country on the planet. We're the second-largest emitter, and we've been doing this for a long time. And the accumulated results of what we've been doing are up in the atmosphere causing damage, and we need to pay attention to that."

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