Many mutually beneficial deals could be made soon, such as Chinese sales of solar panels to the US, and US sales of natural gas to China, as both countries move away from coal and towards renewable energy. Photo: Shutterstock
by Christine Loh
by Christine Loh

In brokering US-China climate cooperation, Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry deserve much credit

  • In 2014, Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry worked on a US-China climate statement and rallied others to sign the Paris Agreement
  • The two sides have identified the many areas where collaboration is desirable and important, including on emerging technologies

China and the United States are keeping the door open for further cooperation that could include technology, industry, trade and more – albeit packaged under the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Their joint statement, released on April 17 in Shanghai, provides for the two countries to “continue to discuss … concrete actions in the 2020s” to reduce climate-warming emissions over a wide range of activities.

These include power generation, energy storage, grid reliability, carbon capture, green hydrogen, renewable energy deployment, green agriculture, energy-efficient buildings, low-carbon transport, as well as aviation and shipping.

The two sides have identified the many areas where cooperation is desirable and important for the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters. These areas include emerging technologies, such as in batteries, carbon capture and zero-carbon fuels where Sino-US collaboration could greatly advance research, development, finance and deployment worldwide.

Moreover, the reference to taking action in “the 2020s” shows the US wants accomplishments soon since the Biden administration faces an election in four years, and China needs to significantly reduce its coal consumption this decade to achieve its goal of peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.

The pace of cooperation has picked up, and more could be expected this year.


US, China put aside differences for pledge to work together on climate change

US, China put aside differences for pledge to work together on climate change
At the climate summit hosted by the US on April 22-23, the US said it would cut greenhouse gas emissions (not just carbon) by 50-52 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 – its most ambitious target so far. China has also pledged, in its 14th five-year-plan (2021-25), to limit the increase in its coal consumption, and to phase down coal, in its 15th five-year-plan (2026-30).

To get there, the US will need to deploy more renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to generate electricity, develop battery technologies for storage, and generate new fuels to replace petroleum products for vehicles.

Likewise, China needs to quickly transition away from coal – which currently provides 57 per cent of its energy – first by using more natural gas, which emits less carbon, to allow time to ramp up its renewable energy capacity, and to develop new fuels before cutting back on natural gas use, too.

Many mutually beneficial deals could be made soon. For example, China could provide the US with large quantities of solar panels at reasonable prices while the US could sell massive quantities of natural gas to China.


World leaders pledge to cut greenhouse emissions at virtual Earth Day summit

World leaders pledge to cut greenhouse emissions at virtual Earth Day summit

They could also find areas of collaboration in research and development that satisfy the US narrative of “compete and cooperate” when it comes to China.

Tributes should be paid to Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry, the climate envoys for China and the US respectively, for hashing out the joint statement.
Xie Zhenhua speaks as China’s special representative on climate change affairs, at a UN climate meeting in Bonn, Germany, on November 16, 2017. Photo: Xinhua

They are not only well-respected and experienced climate negotiators, who are knowledgeable and passionate about tackling the climate crisis seriously and urgently, but they also understand they have an opportunity to bring their countries together when relations have gone off the rails.

They have worked successfully together before. In 2014, they got their respective governments to commit to decarbonisation goals and rallied other countries to sign the Paris Agreement in 2015 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry speaks to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before the US and China formally joined the Paris Agreement, at the West Lake State House in Hangzhou, China, on September 3, 2016. Photo: AFP
Xie and Kerry are mirroring what they did previously. The joint statement recounts past efforts and commitment “to working together” ahead of COP 26, the next round of UN climate negotiations to be held in Glasgow in November, to strengthen the implementation of the multilateral treaty to limit global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius.

This means Xie and Kerry will have to be very hardworking diplomats in coaxing other governments to step up their efforts. They will emphasise the need to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees according to the latest scientific consensus.

Cutting coal usage is vital for the world but challenging. According to the United Nations, coal usage in electricity generation must fall by 80 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030. China’s pledge to phase down coal use within 10 years is crucial because it will help other major coal users, notably India and South Africa, to see a path forward.

US and China cannot ignore vulnerable countries in climate change fight

The Shanghai joint statement contains other far-reaching efforts, too.

China and the US will push for international investment and finance to support decarbonisation. The Paris Agreement has a provision to raise money to support climate action in developing countries, which has yet to be fully met, including by the US.

In addition, the joint statement provides that China and the US will cut their production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbon (HFCs), a powerful greenhouse gas, as required under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

The amendment requires signatories to cut HFCs by more than 80 per cent over the next 30 years. So far, 118 countries have ratified it, and it is only now that China and the US have signalled that they will too. The impact of the amendment is estimated to avoid an increase in global temperatures of up to 0.5 degrees by the end of the century.

Thank you, Mr Xie and Mr Kerry.

Christine Loh, a former undersecretary for the environment, is an adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology