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In surprise move, U.S. and China vow to work together on climate change

The unexpected announcement was light on details, but it gave a jolt of momentum to the U.N. climate summit in Scotland.
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The U.S. and China pledged Wednesday to work closely together on climate change this decade in a rare and unexpected joint statement that brought fresh energy to the final days of the U.N. climate summit in Scotland.

The world's two biggest economies declared their intention "to work individually, jointly, and with other countries during this decisive decade, in accordance with different national circumstances, to strengthen and accelerate climate action and cooperation," the statement read.

The U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, brokered the agreement, which they touted in separate news conferences. Kerry said on Twitter that the deal is "a step in the right direction, a mark of progress and a solid foundation for continued cooperation in climate between our two countries."

The countries said they will work together on deforestation and hold a bilateral meeting next year about methane, a potent greenhouse gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The joint statement, which was otherwise light on details, mostly affirmed earlier goals, such as ending overseas coal financing and preserving the 2015 Paris agreement's target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

But the pledge nonetheless gave a jolt of momentum to the summit by showing that the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — China — was still involved.

It is China's biggest move so far at the conference, where Beijing officials have not had a major presence and President Xi Jinping did not show up.

China was facing major political blowback for largely shrugging off the COP26 summit in Scotland, which scientists have called the last, best chance to avert the worst of global warming. President Joe Biden, in his closing news conference during a two-day stop at the summit, said Xi's decision to skip the conference was "a big mistake."

"The fact that China is trying to assert, understandably, a new role in the world as a world leader, not showing up? Come on," Biden said.

Kerry said in a recent interview in Glasgow that it would have been better for Xi to have attended the summit, but he said he had been having productive conversations with lower-level Chinese officials.

"The door is not shut at this point in time," Kerry said of cooperation with China. "And I really think what's critical is to be summoning everybody's willpower to step further, to do more than they thought was possible."

The absence of several top-level officials from the world's largest polluter had cast a shadow of pessimism over the conference in Glasgow. Wednesday's pledge with the U.S. — the second-largest polluter — appeared aimed at reassuring other participants that the two countries, whose actions will determine the success or failure of climate efforts, were more aligned than not.

Still, China did not sign the global methane pledge the U.S. and the EU brokered in Glasgow to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by 30 percent by the end of the decade. China also disappointed climate hawks by declining to increase its target to reduce emissions. Beijing aims to be carbon neutral by 2060 — a decade after the U.S. goal.

Environmental groups in the U.S. praised the joint declaration while cautioning that the real test will be whether written commitments translate into action. John Podesta, the chair of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said in a statement, "Our future looks brighter today."

Manish Bapna, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the joint declaration was "good news."

"The pledge to strengthen cooperation on clean energy, methane, and deforestation from the two largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters is a welcome step forward," Bapna said in a statement. "But if we are to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we urgently need to see commitments to cooperate translate into bolder climate targets and credible delivery."