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

The agreement was light on details but significant nonetheless.

On Sep. 25, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden toasted during a state luncheon for China hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, at the Department of State in Washington, DC. PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP via Getty Images

The world’s two biggest climate polluters announced a surprise agreement at COP26 Wednesday.

The agreement was light on details but was significant nonetheless, and seen as a potentially positive signal of U.S.-China relations. The two countries will take “enhanced climate actions” and “raise ambition in the 2020s” toward keeping the global warming limits central to the Paris Agreement “within reach.”

The agreement also, for the first time, includes a Chinese commitment to develop a “national plan” to cut methane pollution. China is the world’s largest methane polluter and has so far refused to sign on to the U.S. and EU-backed Global Methane Pledge.

The agreement resembles, but is far less substantial than, a deal brokered by the same lead negotiators — China’s top climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and then Secretary of State John Kerry — in 2014 that laid the groundwork for the Paris Agreement the next year.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and President Biden will meet virtually next week, reportedly Monday evening, the countries confirmed earlier this week.

As reported by The Washington Post:

“The United States and China have no shortage of differences,” U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry said in announcing the agreement Wednesday evening. “But on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done.”

The United States and China, plus other major emitters such as the European Union, have come under fire in recent days for not yet delivering on some of the lofty rhetoric their leaders showcased last week.

But many leaders have demonstrated a willingness during COP26 to go further than they have before, as shown by a new draft of the agreement conference president Alok Sharma released barely 12 hours before the U.S.-China declaration came out.

The draft, which Sharma said he hoped would be signed by the end of the week, proposed a breakthrough not seen in three decades of U.N. climate negotiations: an explicit acknowledgment that nations must phase out coal burning faster and stop subsidizing fossil fuels.

“It’s fossil fuels that cause climate change,” said Mohamed Adow, director of the Kenya-based think tank Power Shift Africa. “Explicitly mentioning it gets on the path to addressing it.”


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