Nov 12, 2021 - Energy & Environment

China’s Glasgow gambit

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Justin Chin/Bloomberg, Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images

GLASGOW, Scotland — China used backroom negotiating to make itself a player, though far from a leader, at the global COP26 climate summit.

Why it matters: It's in the world's best interest for the U.S. and China to manage tensions and cooperate in the future, since the two together account for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases decided not to update its emissions targets or timetables, and President Xi Jinping did not travel to Glasgow for the event either. Instead, he sent just a written statement.

  • But China joined Wednesday's surprise climate declaration with the U.S. — and focused on how to implement the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015, without making its targets more aggressive.

Wednesday's announcement came as a particular surprise since China had mainly been acting behind the scenes at COP26, rather than taking a high-profile role, and relations between the two countries have soured to historic lows in recent months.

  • However, the agreement is more of a first step than a final deal, and it rests on a relatively shaky foundation, dependent on the personal friendship and history between U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua.
  • Both men came out of retirement in the runup to Glasgow, and it’s unclear how long they’ll stay in their posts.

Between the lines: China’s negotiating goals at COP26 appear to be focused more on securing the full implementation of the Paris Agreement than raising the level of ambition, said Bernice Lee, director of research at Chatham House, a U.K. think tank, during a press call on Thursday.

  • She said one of Beijing's overall strategies on display at COP26 is trying not to shoulder the blame for standing in the way of a Glasgow agreement, and this joint statement may have been a means to that end.
  • She called the agreement "the floor, not the ceiling" of potential U.S.-China cooperation.

Details: The declaration aims to reduce emissions faster prior to 2030, which climate scientists say is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels — the level needed to avoid more disastrous climate change consequences.

  • The agreement is long on ambition and short on specifics, with mentions of a working group and cooperation in areas like renewable energy and clean tech.
  • Most significantly, the countries agreed to work together to reduce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that acts on far shorter timescales than more abundant carbon dioxide.

Behind the scenes: The handling of the announcement showed how much awkwardness remains in the relationship.

  • The Chinese delegation briefed the press first and posted the document online before the U.S. did — an unusual sequence for a "joint announcement" (though Xie said both sides had agreed to it).
  • The Chinese delegation went over their allotted time for answering questions, leaving Kerry and his team standing out in the cold for several minutes before they were able to speak.

What they're saying: Experts on China's approach to climate change said the joint agreement itself was a victory.

  • The announcement "sends an energizing signal to the COP26 negotiators because it demonstrates that these two major emitters can still work together,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, who worked on a 2015 joint climate agreement with China for the Obama administration.
  • Li Shuo, a climate expert at Greenpeace East Asia, said the most important aspect of the agreement is language that opens the door for revisiting each country’s emissions targets before the year 2030.

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