US and China pledge joint action on climate change despite strained ties

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The US and China have committed to work together to urgently combat climate change despite rising tensions over Beijing’s assertive policies on Taiwan and the South China Sea and over human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, the climate envoys for the world’s two biggest economies, have vowed to co-operate “to tackle the climate crisis”, committing to “concrete actions in the 2020s” to reduce emissions in line with the aims of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

“Both countries recall their historic contribution to the development, adoption, signature, and entry into force of the Paris Agreement through their leadership and collaboration,” they said in a joint statement.

The pledge, which follows two days of high-stakes meetings in Shanghai, is a signal that climate change could be a rare area of collaboration in a strained relationship.

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US President Joe Biden’s climate policy has already departed sharply from that of his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration, bringing the US back into the Paris accord ahead of setting a new climate target for 2030.

Under the Paris deal, countries committed to limiting global warming to “well below” 2C, preferably about 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels, by 2100.

However, heading into the meetings between Kerry and Xie in Shanghai, environmentalists said a US-China agreement on climate change was far from guaranteed.

Li Shuo, an energy policy officer at Greenpeace in Beijing, said the US-China statement, followed “difficult talks” and came “amid great geopolitical challenges”. But it should sharply increase the momentum on climate action globally.

“It is very important for the rest of the world to understand that at least on the issue of climate change the G2 are united again,” Li said.

He added: “We all know what could happen when these countries are aligned on this particular issue because we all saw that in the run-up to the Paris climate summit.”

Kerry’s trip to China came ahead of a US summit this week, which has been billed as a showcase for Biden’s new climate policies, and as Beijing vies to be seen as a leader in global climate negotiations.

In the statement, the countries committed to co-operating in multilateral processes. This includes the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris agreement, as well as the COP26 climate change conference being held in Glasgow in November

“The United States and China will continue to discuss, both on the road to COP 26 and beyond, concrete actions in the 2020s to reduce emissions aimed at keeping the Paris Agreement-aligned temperature limit within reach,” Kerry and Xie said.

Edgare Kerkwijk, a board member of the Asia Wind Energy Association, said while the US-China statement “provides only a high level commitment” and lacked detail, the joint promises will accelerate the world’s transition from fossil fuels.

“The probability that we will reach a more comprehensive climate agreement during the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow has grown significantly,” said Kerkwijk, adding: “It will be more difficult for smaller economies not to join the energy transition process.”

The meetings came against backdrop of intensifying clashes between Washington and Beijing as Joe Biden’s administration maintains a tough posture towards China.

The US opposes Beijing’s actions to reduce the autonomy of Hong Kong and human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

It has also maintained pressure on technology companies with alleged links to China’s military.

In the latest flare up, China’s embassy in the US capital on Saturday criticised comments by Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga and Biden opposing an escalation in military activity near Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

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