November 16, 2023 - The United States and China, the world’s two largest climate polluters, have agreed to jointly tackle global warming by ramping up wind, solar and other renewable energy with the goal of displacing fossil fuels.
The announcement comes as President Biden prepares to meet Wednesday with President Xi Jinping of China for their first face-to-face discussion in a year. The climate agreement could emerge as a bright spot in talks that are likely to focus on sensitive topics including Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas.
The statements of cooperation released separately by the United States and China on Tuesday do not include a promise by China to phase out its heavy use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, or to stop permitting and building new coal plants. That has been a sticking point for the United States in months of discussions with Beijing on climate change.
But both countries agreed to “pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030.” That growth should reach levels high enough “so as to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation,” the agreement says. Both countries anticipate “meaningful absolute power sector emission reduction” in this decade, it says. That appears to be the first time China has agreed to specific emissions targets in any part of its economy.
The agreement comes two weeks before representatives from nearly 200 countries converge in Dubai as part of the United Nations climate talks known as COP28. The United States and China have an outsize role to play there as nations debate whether to phase out fossil fuel.
“This lays the foundation for the negotiations in Dubai,” said David Sandalow, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations who is now a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It sends a strong signal to other countries that this language works, and more broadly that differences can be overcome.”
The agreement does not specify how China will push fossil fuels off its electricity grid. While the United States has displaced some of its fossil fuels by increasing solar and wind power, China has been building more renewable energy than any other country but at the same time has also been constructing new coal-fired power plants.
Still, many of those Chinese coal-fired plants are expected to operate at less than full capacity and the International Energy Agency predicted last month that China’s use of coal will drop in the next several years, and possibly as soon as next year.
An analysis by CarbonBrief, a United Kingdom-based energy publication, found that China’s emissions are likely to fall next year, after they had rebounded from a decline because of coronavirus restrictions. That is in part because of “record installations of low-carbon electricity” that the analysis found could be enough to meet rising electricity demand.
Mr. Sandalow said displacing fossil fuels as described in the U.S.-China agreement would allow the countries to share knowledge as they both work to add more renewable power to their electric grids and invest in energy storage and better transmission.
“This is the nature of diplomatic statements, they’re not binding legal documents but statements of intention,” Mr. Sandalow said. But he added, “In my experience, neither the U.S. government nor the Chinese government make high-profile statements like this unless there are serious plans to implement the agreement.”
Earlier this month, John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, met with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, at the Sunnylands estate in California to lay the groundwork for the agreement announced late Tuesday.
“The United States and China recognize that the climate crisis has increasingly affected countries around the world,” the Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis says.
“Both countries stress the importance of COP 28 in responding meaningfully to the climate crisis during this critical decade and beyond” and pledge in the statement “to rise up to one of the greatest challenges of our time for present and future generations of humankind.”
As part of the deal, China agreed to set reduction targets for all greenhouse gas emissions. That is significant because the current Chinese climate goal addresses only carbon dioxide, leaving out methane, nitrous oxide and other gases that are acting as a blanket around the planet.
Methane spews from oil and gas operations as well as coal mining and can be 80 times as potent as a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide in the short term. Greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide account for a fifth of China’s emissions. Methane makes up about half of that, and other gases like hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and nitrous oxide account for the rest.
The Chinese government released a long-awaited blueprint last week for addressing methane, but analysts dismissed it as toothless because it lacked targets for emissions reductions.
The Sunnylands agreement also lacks targets but says the two countries will work together to set them.
China has refused to join the Global Methane Pledge, an agreement among more than 150 nations, led by the United States and Europe, that promises to collectively reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
The United States and China also agreed that in the next set of climate pledges — which nations are supposed to put forward in 2025 — China will set emissions reduction targets across its economy. Its current pledge calls for carbon dioxide emissions to peak before 2030 but does not specify how high they might go before the curve begins to bend or specify by how much it might slash emissions.
President Xi has also pledged that China will become carbon neutral by 2060, meaning it will produce no more carbon emissions than it can offset.
Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, praised the U.S.-China agreement and called it “a foundation of ambition” ahead of the U.N. climate summit in Dubai.
“This sends a powerful message of cooperation on the existential challenge of our time,” Mr. Bapna said. “What’s important now is that both countries make good on today’s pledge.”
The deal is the product of months of negotiations between Mr. Kerry, 79, and Mr. Xie, 73, friends and sparring partners on climate for more than 25 years. Both left retirement to become climate envoys for their countries and have advocated within their governments for diplomacy on climate change. Mr. Xie, who suffered a stroke last year, is expected to retire after the U.N. summit in Dubai.
Their negotiations came to a standstill in 2022 after Nancy Pelosi, then the House speaker, traveled to Taiwan, a move seen as provocative by Beijing. Then, early this year, an American fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had floated over the continental United States.
In July, amid efforts by the Biden administration to improve ties, Mr. Kerry traveled to Beijing.
That effort did not end in success. Mr. Xi took the opportunity of Mr. Kerry’s visit to deliver a speech declaring that China would never be “swayed by others” on its climate goals.
Still, Mr. Kerry said optimistically at the time that “we set the stage” for a deal.
When it comes to climate change, no relationship is as important as the one between the United States and China.
The United States, the biggest climate polluter in history, and China, the current largest polluter, together account for 38 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.
That means the willingness of the two countries to urgently slash emissions will essentially determine whether nations can limit the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say increasingly severe wildfires, floods, heat and drought will outpace humanity’s ability to adapt. The planet has already warmed 1.2 degrees.
But neither the United States nor China will act rapidly unless the other does. Both nations are taking steps to tackle emissions, but hard-liners in each country argue the other is not doing enough, and each country has cast the other’s climate promises as insincere.
While the United States has reduced its emissions, Chinese officials have said the American goal of cutting its pollution at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of this decade is inadequate, and some officials have questioned whether the United States can even meet it.
Leaders in China also are acutely aware of the partisan divide in the America on climate change and have little confidence that a future administration would keep promises made by Mr. Biden. Most Republican presidential candidates refuse to acknowledge the established science of climate change, and the front-runner, Donald Trump, has promised to halt climate action and encourage more oil drilling, gas fracking and coal mining.
American lawmakers, on the other hand, note that China’s emissions continue to grow and that the country has so far only promised to hit a peak sometime before 2030 and then maintain a plateau before dropping. That’s unacceptable for most members of Congress, who believe that China, the world’s second largest economy, should be moving at a pace similar to that of the United States.
The Chinese government issued a plan on Nov. 10 to pay large annual bonuses to electric utilities to keep coal-fired capacity available for surges in power demand, even if it is seldom used. Mr. Xi has long emphasized energy security and self-reliance.
That emphasis increased after a 2021 heat wave coincided with a shutdown of many coal-fired power plants. Blackouts ensued in many cities, with office workers being forced to flee down long flights of stairs and with one chemical factory blowing up, injuring dozens of workers.