U.S. and China commit to ‘taking enhanced climate actions’ after Kerry’s negotiations in Shanghai

Foreign Affairs

China appeared to accept U.S. climate envoy John Kerry’s proposition that climate change be treated as a standalone issue in relations, nearly three months after dismissing the possibility. But will the words of a new joint statement translate into action?

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Nearly three months into the Biden administration, but days ahead of a U.S.-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate beginning on Earth Day, the U.S. and China are back on the same page on climate policy — on paper, at least.

  • “The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” begins a joint statement released by the two sides’ special envoys, John Kerry and Xiè Zhènhuá 解振华.

The statement goes on to say the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases are committed to “taking enhanced climate actions,” and notes many areas of joint policy interest, including:

  • International investment and finance to support the transition to green energy in developing countries;
  • Reduction of hydrofluorocarbon and methane emissions;
  • New technologies in energy storage and energy efficiency; and
  • Limiting emissions from international civil aviation and maritime activities.

“This is the first time China has joined in saying it’s a crisis,” John Kerry told the Wall Street Journal, also emphasizing China’s agreement to use the word “enhance” to indicate an openness to more aggressive targets than the 2030 peak, 2060 net zero goal that Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 set last year.

The joint statement is significant because for months, Beijing had brushed away Kerry’s suggestion that climate change could be treated as a “standalone issue,” insisting that bilateral relations as a whole needed to improve before talking about cooperation in any specific area.

  • Even as Kerry was in Shanghai last week, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Lè Yùchéng 乐玉成 was telling the Associated Press that asking China to do more on climate was “not very realistic.”
  • A day before the climate joint statement was released, President Biden successfully persuaded a hesitant Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to make his country’s “most assertive” stance on Taiwan since 1969 — a development that surely unsettled Beijing, but did not scuttle the climate statement.
  • One possibility: Perhaps Beijing just felt the need to stall for a short time, to avoid the perception it was caving to U.S. pressure, if nothing else.
  • That might also help explain why the Chinese Foreign Ministry continues to give coy responses when asked about Xi Jinping’s potential participation in the Leaders Summit on Climate — today, a spokesperson merely offered, “The Chinese side…is positively looking into that.” (The WSJ says that “people familiar with the matter said he would participate.”)

But will the words turn into action?

It’s too soon to tell. Both country leaders are expected to announce updated climate goals this week — Xi Jinping may choose the Bo’ao Forum for Asia, at which he is giving a keynote address tomorrow, to make some pledges, while Biden is “expected to announce a new goal for reducing U.S. emissions” at the end of the Leaders Summit on Climate, the WSJ reports. Additionally, if Xi does end up participating in the summit, the two leaders could make a joint statement.

The exact role of U.S.-China climate cooperation, as opposed to competing to develop new technologies or finding other ways of tackling climate change, is a subject of active debate among analysts.

  • Lauri Myllyvirta, a prominent analyst of China’s climate goals, comments that the idea of “working together on climate” is often ill-defined, and suggests that the best way to get China to quit financing coal or peak emissions sooner is instead through “competing to gain a lead in the key low-carbon technologies.”
  • Alex Wang, an expert in Chinese environmental law, writes in a new paper that “constructive competition” will be the defining feature of U.S.-China climate relations, but adds, “Cooperation or coordination, where possible, can accelerate climate action in both countries, but can also play a role in ensuring that competition remains constructive.”