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“Cooperation is the only choice”: how China and the US paused tensions at COP26

“What will happen? Who is going to speak?”. Confusion dominated the Blue Zone at the COP26 venue on Wednesday evening – with even the most informed journalists asking one another what the next event was all about. 

Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy at COP26, hosted a press conference for 30 minutes. Then, John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy, would take over to speak with the press.

“Following the spirits and the instructions of the two presidents, our two teams have hosted around 30 virtual meetings and met in Shanghai and Tianjin in China, and London and Glasgow in the UK,” Xie said. 

Against any expectations, both countries published a joint statement, in which they announced cooperation to get a successful agreement from COP26. 

Xie recognized that there is a “gap” between the current plans to combat climate change and the efforts needed to keep up with the Paris temperature goal of 2C of global warming. 

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An agreement in low profile

As COP26 approached an end and negotiations became strained, Xie said that they had reached a consensus on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris framework, the Paris climate control goal, as well as climate finance. 

“We committed to work with other parties to enhance the finalization of the Paris Agreement rulebook in order to build a global carbon market and also enhance transparency,” he said. “We take real actions and fulfill our commitment 100%,” he added. 

According to Xie, China’s national carbon market has worked smoothly and China plans to expand it to other sectors in order to drive down the cost of carbon emissions. “We hope COP26 can finalise the outstanding issue of article 6 and build a global carbon market.” 

The two most prominent climate politicians from the two big emitters, who have known each other for more than 20 years, coordinated perfectly on the announcement despite the China-US tension. 

“The release of this joint statement shows again that cooperation is the only choice for both China and the United States,” Xie addressed the press conference. 

Whilst a large group of journalists chased Kerry right after the press conference, Mr. Xie brushed right by him with only three escorts, cleverly evading the crowd. 

This echoes China’s climate diplomacy strategy at COP26 and beyond: low-profile; strategically planned; clear on their goals. The country has pushed common but differentiated responsibilities, exiting the spotlight at just the right moment.

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FILE PHOTO: U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks at a news conference during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble

No surprises

China did not surprise us with new pledges, commented some analysts. However, this is a positive signal, as Xi Liang, a professor in Sustainable Construction and Infrastructure Transition at University College London, said in an interview. 

“The US has political risks in implementing these commitments due to party rotation and other reasons.” Other mechanisms and laws are needed to secure the commitments. “A more specific and strengthened consensus will be needed for binding mechanisms,” Professor Liang said, referring to paragraphs 15 and 16 of the declaration.

Both countries intend to communicate 2035 NDCs in 2025. The two sides intend to establish a “Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s.”

China did not join the Global Methane Pledge pushed by the US and the EU. Instead, “China and the US are at different stages of development. Using the same targets to bind us is not very feasible,” responded Professor Liang. 

“If China sees the fine print of the pledge later on and sees there is a possibility, it might join, but that will not necessarily happen at COP26,” he added.

As Professor Liang said at China’s corporate pavilion earlier, “you never know what is going to happen with the development of technology. Maybe in 2025, China will make another pledge.”

“Despite areas of real differences, we can cooperate on the climate crisis,” said John Kerry, expressing the spirit of President Xi and President Biden’s talk. 

“The two sides recall their intention to continue discussing, both on the road to COP26 and beyond, concrete actions in the 2020s to reduce emissions aimed at keeping the Paris Agreement-aligned temperature limit within reach,” Kerry added. 

He cited paragraph 6 of the declaration, a very “important” paragraph according to him. “The infrastructure bill has been passed,” Kerry responded to the question about the US delivering its own climate policies. “It is a very important legislation”.

The joint declaration is an outcome of a series of long-term discussions between the two superpowers. Mr. Kerry joked that he “is not going to negotiate tonight”, referring to the COP26 final deal under fire by observers.

But this significant agreement as a result of the bilateral talks will affect COP26 and beyond. As commented by E3G, “with enhanced actions in the 2020s, the US and China must show that they are taking the responsibility they promised to prevent dangerous climate change. This must now be reflected in the negotiating rooms and in the final cover decision text at COP26.”

Yiyao Yang
Yiyao is a committed young professional with experience in journalism and development. She learned about dislocation and communication barriers through her work in China, Japan, and countries with fragile infrastructures, such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, where she witnessed the adverse effects of climate change. Besides climate stories, she covers migration and contemporary art. Yiyao is now studying at Hertie School in Berlin.