The US and China have “committed to cooperating” on the pressing issue of climate change, the two sides said in a joint statement on Saturday, following a visit to Shanghai by US climate envoy John Kerry.
“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” said the statement from Kerry and China’s special envoy for climate change, Xie Zhenhua.
Kerry, the former US secretary of state, was the first official from president Joe Biden’s administration to visit China, signalling hopes the two sides could work together on the global challenge despite sky-high tensions on multiple other fronts.
It comes as world leaders prepare for a virtual summit on climate change this week as Joe Biden leads a new push to cut emissions. The US president has invited 40 leaders, including Chinese president Xi Jinping, to take part in the two-day summit starting on Friday 22 April, Earth Day, to galvanise efforts by major economies to combat climate change ahead of key UN talks hosted by the UK this year.
The statement said both countries “look forward” to the summit, but did not specify if Xi would attend.
“We very much hope he will take part,” Kerry, who is now in South Korea, told reporters on Sunday.
“Of course, every country will make its own decisions,” he said, adding: “We’re not seeking to force anybody. We’re seeking cooperation.”
China currently has about half of the world’s coal power, Kerry said, adding that he “talked a lot” about it with officials in Shanghai.
“I am not pointing fingers,” said Kerry. “We’ve had too much coal, other countries have too much coal, but China is the biggest, biggest coal user in the world. And because it’s such a big and powerful economy and country, it needs to move.”
The joint statement listed multiple avenues of cooperation between the US and China, the world’s top two economies that together account for nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
It stressed “enhancing their respective actions and cooperating in multilateral processes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement”.
The nations also agreed to discuss specific “concrete” emission reduction actions including energy storage, carbon capture and hydrogen, and agreed to take action to maximise financing for developing countries to switch to low-carbon energy sources.
While Biden hoped countries would make climate commitments ahead of the Earth Day summit, Chinese vice foreign minister Le Yucheng signalled last week that China was unlikely to make any new pledges.
“For a big country with 1.4 billion people, these goals are not easily delivered,” Le said during an interview with the Associated Press in Beijing, conducted while Kerry was still in Shanghai for talks.
“Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.”
On whether Xi would join the summit, Le said “the Chinese side is actively studying the matter”.
During a video meeting with German and French leaders on Friday, Xi also said that climate change “should not become a geopolitical chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers,” though he called for closer cooperation on the issue, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Li Shuo, senior climate adviser for the environmental group Greenpeace, welcomed the joint statement, saying China could soon respond to a new US pledge with one of its own, building on the “momentum” of the Shanghai talks.
“The statement in my view is as positive as the politics would allow: it sends a very unequivocal message that on this particular issue (China and the United States) will cooperate. Before the meetings in Shanghai this was not a message that we could assume,” Li said.
Biden has made climate a top priority, turning the page from his predecessor Donald Trump, who was closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry.
The US president has rejoined the 2015 Paris accord, which Kerry negotiated when he was secretary of state, and committed nations to taking action to keep temperature rises at no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Biden has pledged the US will switch to an emissions-free power sector within 14 years, and have an entirely emissions-free economy by 2050. Kerry is also pushing other nations to commit to carbon neutrality by then.
Xi announced last year that China would be carbon-neutral by 2060 and aims to reach a peak in its emissions by 2030. In March, China’s Communist party pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 18% over the next five years, in line with its goal for the previous five-year period. But environmentalists say China needs to do more.