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US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry waves as he arrives at the Elysee Presidential Palace on March 10, 2021 in Paris. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Despite an increasingly tense relationship, the U.S. and China agreed Saturday to work together to tackle global climate change, including by "raising ambition" for emissions cuts during the 2020s — a key goal of the Biden administration.

Why it matters: The joint communique released Saturday evening commits the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases to work together to keep the most ambitious temperature target contained in the Paris Climate Agreement viable by potentially taking additional emissions cuts prior to 2030.

  • In addition, the document leaves open the possibility that the U.S. and China can act jointly on climate change while having strong disagreements on trade, technology, and national security issues, though how far this cooperation can extend remains to be seen.

Details: Ahead of negotiations in Shanghai between John Kerry, President Biden's special envoy for climate, and Xie Zhenhua, his Chinese counterpart, the State Department had worked to downplay expectations.

  • In fact, the participation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the White House's virtual climate summit on April 22-23 has been in doubt.
  • But the document indicates China will participate in the summit, stating: "Both countries look forward to the US-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22/23. They share the Summit’s goal of raising global climate ambition on mitigation, adaptation..."
  • In addition, the document calls for both countries to move away from funding fossil fuel energy sources, and toward clean energy.

Yes, but: The document is lacking in specifics, including any new emissions targets from either country.

Driving the news: China is by far the world's top current emitter of greenhouse gases, while the U.S. is the second-largest emitter. However, when viewed historically, the U.S. is the top contributor to global warming.

  • The problem cannot be solved without the participation of these two countries, and they're at loggerheads over a host of other issues.

The big picture: Meanwhile, the world is well off track to meeting the goals of the Paris agreement, which calls for keeping global warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and trying to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or. 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, relative to the preindustrial era.

  • Warming beyond these levels raises the odds of potentially catastrophic impacts, scientists warn.
  • Currently, the world is on track to warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius, or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100.
  • In order to meet the Paris targets, studies show, the world must begin slashing emissions prior to 2030.

Of note: China is a major user of coal-fired power plants, and there have been concerns that it has been taking a fossil fuel intensive approach to its Belt and Road Initiative involving many developing nations.

What they're saying: Alden Meyer, a senior associate with the climate think tank E3G, told Axios that the joint statement "seems generally very positive," but also notes many details remain to be worked out.

  • "It's probably a very negotiated text, but it committed China in a sense to taking actions in the 2020s, which is the question people have been having since President Xi’s [2060] net-zero commitment last September — what will China do to accelerate action in this decade toward that net-zero goal," he said.
  • Li Shuo, policy officer with Greenpeace East Asia, told Axios that the joint statement "highlights the unequivocal commitment of both the US and China to work together in addressing the climate crisis. It is a firm step towards cooperation amid great geopolitical challenges.
"The difficult meetings in Shanghai bore fruit. Let that move the politics closer to where science requires us to be."

Catch up fast: Prior to the successful negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the U.S. struck a bilateral agreement with China to address emissions, paving the way for a more united front at the actual summit.

  • To date, China has pledged to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by over 65% by 2030 and boost the share of nonfossil fuels in energy consumption to roughly 25% by then.
  • It also aims to be carbon-neutral by 2060 and have its emissions peak before 2030.

The intrigue: Kerry's visit, and the participation of Xie, who had been his counterpart in 2015 as well, demonstrated that the U.S. was trying to return to that formula.

Context: Much has changed since Paris was signed.

  • Global emissions have gone up, and the effects of climate change have become more obvious in the form of massive wildfires in the U.S. and Australia, melting glaciers and heat waves. And under President Trump, the U.S. abandoned the Paris agreement, only to rejoin it under Biden.

What to watch: While the communique mentions cooperation in several key technological areas of clean energy, a big question is whether China will offer a firm commitment to a pre-2030 emissions reduction target at the White House summit.

Ben Geman contributed reporting.

Go deeper

Apr 16, 2021 - World

Top official says asking China to do more on climate is "not very realistic"

Le Yucheng in 2015. Photo: Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng told AP on Friday that China is unlikely to pursue climate proposals beyond its current arsenal, calling it "not very realistic" for a country of 1.4 billion people.

Why it matters: Despite heightened geopolitical tensions, the Biden administration has emphasized the need to partner with China on climate change. Le's comments come as Biden's climate envoy John Kerry is discussing the issue in meetings with Chinese officials in Shanghai.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Apr 16, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Climate spotlight moves to Wall Street and its overseers

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Wall Street titans and the regulators overseeing them are increasingly important actors in the fight against global warming, and this week underscored that trend.

Driving the news: Two banking giants — JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup — yesterday vowed to steer trillions of dollars into sustainability efforts that include a focus on clean energy and climate.

Apr 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.