The United States and China, the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, have pledged to strengthen their cooperation on climate change, as their leaders prepare for a rare face-to-face meeting on Wednesday.
The two countries will work together and with others “to rise up to one of the greatest challenges of our time for present and future generations of humankind,” the State Department said in a statement Tuesday that was also released by China.
They are reviving a bilateral working group that will address issues including energy transition, methane and deforestation, marking the full restoration of climate relations that China cut off more than a year ago amid tensions over the Beijing-claimed island of Taiwan.
The two countries also expressed support for a declaration by world leaders at this year’s Group of 20 summit to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, and vowed to work together on a global, legally binding agreement to reduce plastic pollution.
The announcement is a crucial signal for the world, much of which takes its climate cues from the U.S. and China. It comes less than a month before countries gather in Dubai for COP28, the United Nations conference at which they are expected to agree to new pledges to fight climate change and its consequences.
“Both countries stress the importance of COP 28 in responding meaningfully to the climate crisis during this critical decade and beyond,” the U.S. and China said in the statement.
Climate change has been one of the more promising areas for cooperation between the two economic giants as ties are strained by differences over trade, technology, Taiwan and China’s stance on wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Those topics are likely to dominate a summit between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, their first in-person meeting since last November.
“I think both presidents see the climate and clean energy space as perhaps one of the bright spots in the relationship,” Alden Meyer, senior associate at E3G, a climate think tank that focuses on global policy, said before the announcement. “Both in terms of what the countries are doing domestically and how they can help smooth out some of the roadblocks to successful outcomes in the climate negotiations process.”
The announcement follows talks earlier this month between John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, the two countries’ top climate envoys, at the Sunnylands estate in California.
Kerry had expressed hope for enhanced cooperation despite a lack of breakthroughs during his July visit to Beijing, during which Xi told a conference that China’s climate goals “will never be influenced by others.”
Kerry and Xie, both in their 70s, have a warm relationship that goes back decades and have held frequent video calls since Kerry’s China trip.
In the joint statement, the U.S. and China said they would ramp up the use of renewable energy in their economies through 2030 “so as to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.” But there was no mention of phasing out fossil fuels such as coal, which China still relies on heavily.
Each country has, however, shown signs of willingness to clean up its energy use. China recently announced its long-awaited methane emissions agreement, and the sweeping policies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. climate law that passed last year, help both nations align on decarbonizing sectors while bringing down emissions.
Fan Dai, director of the California-China Climate Institute, a partnership between the University of California, Berkeley, and Tsinghua University in Beijing, said cooperation would be natural since both countries want to move away from fossil fuels and bolster their economies but have security implications to consider.
“I think that’s another issue that really requires the two countries to work together with each other and with the rest of the world,” she said.
The climate community has warned that the world is barreling toward the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold at which point the effects of human-caused global warming cannot be reversed. Both the U.S. and China are experiencing the harsh effects of climate change in the form of extreme flooding and heat waves.
COP28 will serve as a crucial waypoint for the world’s climate mitigation efforts. The European Union has already said it will make a substantial financial contribution to a fund to address destruction by climate change, and Reuters reported that more than 60 countries have expressed support for an agreement to triple renewable energy this decade.
Dai said the optics of climate cooperation could also give the topic a boost as the rivals square off in other arenas.
“In the climate space, I think that cooperating with the U.S. does not mean President Xi has to bend his knees to the U.S. and to Biden. It’s more taking a long-term view, and it’s more of how a leader should think,” she said.
Similarly, she said, “working with China on climate does not mean Biden is weakening his position on China. I think the opposite, actually, that it means it’s a very wise foreign policy movement.”
CORRECTION (Nov. 14, 2023, 9:20 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the president of China. He is Xi Jinping, not Jingping.