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US and China pledge to resume climate working group, ramp up renewables ahead of Biden-Xi summit

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The United States and China have agreed to resume a working group on climate cooperation and pledged a major ramp-up of renewable energy, the two sides announced Wednesday ahead of a leaders’ summit in San Francisco, as the world’s two largest polluters seek to overcome their geopolitical tensions to tackle the climate crisis.

The announcement came hours before US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are set to sit down on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit for their first talk in a year – a highly anticipated meeting aimed at stabilizing rocky relations.

Cooperation on climate change has long been seen as a rare bright spot in an otherwise difficult US-China relationship strained by tensions over trade, technology, human rights and geopolitics. But even that bright spot had dimmed over the past year, with Beijing cutting off climate talks with Washington in retaliation for a high-level US visit to Taiwan last summer.

The statement on Wednesday, released separately by the US State Department and China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, followed days of meetings between US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua at the Sunnylands retreat in California earlier this month. The two envoys also met in Beijing for talks this summer.

The two sides decided to “operationalize” a suspended bilateral working group to “engage in dialogue and cooperation to accept concrete climate actions” in this decade, according to the statement. That working group was first proposed by Kerry and Xie in 2021 at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, but has been on hold since August last year.

The statement also vows a major ramp-up of renewable energy including wind, solar, and battery storage to help run each country’s massive power sector – specifically to take the place of planet-warming fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

China and the US committed to “sufficiently accelerate renewable energy deployment” in their economies until the end of 2030 to speed up “the substitution for coal, oil and gas.” They also pledged to support efforts to “triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030,” and said they plan to meaningfully reduce emissions from their power sector within this decade.

Both countries agreed to economy-wide reductions of all greenhouse gases in their international climate commitments for 2035, including carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons. The agreement involves attempting to cut emissions in line with keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius – a crucial threshold above which scientists say climate change effects such as heatwaves and droughts will become difficult for humans and entire ecosystems to adapt to.

The statement marks the first time China has officially stated its intent to control the release of all greenhouse gas emissions – not just carbon dioxide as outlined in its current climate goals, said a Chinese climate scholar in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anominity as he did not obtain approval to speak to the media.

“Under the current political environment, both parties have tried their best to find some practical and feasible points that can be advanced. It is very pragmatic,” the scholar said.

Li Shuo, the director of China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said China’s pledge to set release targets for all greenhouse gas emissions was arguably the most notable point in the statement.

“Carbon dioxide is only one of the greenhouse gases. Non-carbon dioxide gases such as methane still account for a considerable share of China’s greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“If you don’t include them, you’re not actually covering a significant portion of the country’s entire emissions.”

China had previously committed to peaking its emissions “before 2030,” but has not specified exactly when it would do so. But there are signs that the country’s rapid buildout of wind and solar could be starting to displace coal; a Carbon Brief analysis released this week said China’s emissions could start to fall next year – and could portend a broader shift downward.

Still, even with the promises of a significant ramp-up of renewables, there were no explicit words from China on whether it would phase out or phase down its use of coal – the most polluting form of fossil fuel.

The Sunnylands statement also comes three weeks before the annual UN climate conference known as COP28, which is being held this year in Dubai. Other countries are frequently watching for signs of cooperation between the world’s two biggest emitters – which can set the tone and pace for the annual conference.

Li, at the Asia Society, said the Sunnylands statement was a “timely effort of aligning the US and China” ahead of COP28, as their engagement is “a precondition for meaningful global progress.”

But he said the challenging US-China relationship meant the climate agreement between them would only be “floor setting”, not “tone setting” – and COP 28 has its work cut out for it.

“The US-China talks will help stabilize the politics when countries meet in the UAE, but critical issues such as fossil fuel phase out still require much political efforts. China also needs to consider what further ambition can be brought to the COP. Stopping the approval of new coal power projects is a good next step,” he added.

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