The U.S. and China released an unexpected joint declaration on climate change at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday, committing themselves to “accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s” and multilateral cooperation to “hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees C.”
The joint statement was reportedly finalized only hours before it was announced. Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua said the statement showed there is “more agreement between China and the U.S. than divergence.”
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry called the joint statement a “roadmap for our future collaboration.”
“Tonight I am pleased to announce on behalf of President Biden and Secretary Blinken that we have agreed to a basic framework for this cooperation going forward,” Kerry said Wednesday on behalf of President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Kerry praised the U.S.-China declaration for making “strong statements about the alarming science, the emissions gap and the urgent need to accelerate the actions to close that gap.”
According to Kerry, those actions will include both nations working to limit methane emissions and making their “best efforts to phase down unabated coal in this decade as fast as is achievable.”
This was an interesting turn of phrase from Kerry because China is currently hauling record amounts of coal out of every foreign and domestic mine it has access to and pouring that haul into the record-breaking number of coal-fired power plants it constructed last year.
The Chinese are happy to collect whatever political capital the Biden administration tosses them for free with joint statements like this, but they have clearly demonstrated they have absolutely no intention of compromising their industrial goals and they will burn as much coal as they think necessary for as long as they need the electricity from those power plants.
Journalists covering the joint declaration tend to describe the U.S. and China as “the world’s worst polluters,” but China emits nearly twice as much carbon as the United States, or as much as the rest of the top-five combined.
China’s carbon emissions are still rising, and they even rose during the worst months of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, when the rest of the world saw its “carbon footprint” shrink along with its economies.
Beijing refused to make any binding pledges to reverse this trend during COP26. Pressed on its big-polluting ways, China claims it is a “developing nation” that has a “right” to produce whatever emissions it thinks are necessary. It refused to sign agreements to reduce coal use or methane agreements that were presented during the summit.
The joint statement touted by Kerry corrects none of these problems, as it consists entirely of the aspirational language China routinely deploys – listing things the two countries “welcome,” “recognize,” “intend,” and plan to “continue discussing,” but nothing concrete the Chinese would be required to do.
For example, point 3 of the joint statement says the U.S. and China “recall their firm commitment to work together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.”
The Trump administration was excoriated by environmentalists for withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, but the U.S. environmental record got better after that, while China’s got worse. Politically-biased “fact checkers” were left scrambling to nitpick President Donald Trump’s statements about the U.S. environmental record, accusing him of exaggerating the improvements made during his administration, but the trends of both countries were undeniable.
The Biden administration gave China a tremendous political gift by signing on to a joint declaration that made both countries seem equal as the world’s top two polluters, helping Beijing get off the hook for behavior that was sorely testing the climate change movement’s seemingly boundless indulgence for China’s offenses.
China’s state-run Global Times appreciated the value of Biden’s political gift, tying it firmly into Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda that “China-U.S. cooperation is the only right choice” – coded language for “the U.S. needs to stop pestering us about repression, forced labor, unfair trade practices, Taiwan, and where the coronavirus came from.”
The Global Times touted the joint declaration as proof the U.S. and China are equals, asserting China is the leader on environmental matters, no matter how much greenhouse gas Chinese power plants and factories might be belching into the atmosphere:
Xu Huaqing, a senior adviser of the Chinese delegation to COP26, told the Global Times that China has taken an active part in leading global climate governance, and also played an important historic role in facilitating the formulation of rules for the Paris Agreement through the diplomacy of the heads of state of China, the US and the EU. China looks forward to further strengthening dialogue and cooperation with the US and the EU, and working with other parties to strengthen the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
To achieve the long-term goals set in the Paris Agreement, developed countries should first take the lead in deepening emission reduction, which is the key to achieving global net zero emissions at an early date. The key to the international community’s ambition lies in the need for countries to take strong concrete actions rather than empty slogans, Xu said.
Regarding the expected goals of the COP26, Xu said he believes that it is particularly important to form a consensus on some aspects, including finishing the talks on the implementation rules of the Paris Agreement, and making concrete progress on financial and technology support for developing countries.
The rest of the Global Times article portrayed China as the patron saint of “financial and technology support for developing countries,” while making it clear China still sees itself as a developing nation.
Kerry positioned the joint climate declaration as a political document that marked the beginning of a sea change in U.S.-China relations.
“This declaration is a step that we can build on in order to help close the gap. You know the expression that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step?’ Well, every step matters right now, and we have a long journey ahead of us,” he said on Wednesday.