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Despite diplomatic clashes, U.S. and China vow to work together on climate change

Special presidential envoy for climate John F. Kerry just traveled to Shanghai to push for more ambitious action ahead of upcoming summits

U.S. special presidential envoy for climate John F. Kerry visits Shanghai on Wednesday ahead of a White House climate summit. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The United States and China vowed late Saturday to work together in coming months to combat climate change “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” a move that signaled a rare collaboration even as they clash over trade frictions, China’s harsh treatment of Uyghurs and a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

The announcement came after President Biden’s international climate envoy, former secretary of state John F. Kerry, traveled to China this week to meet with his counterparts ahead of a White House climate summit Thursday and Friday. The virtual event will involve dozens of world leaders and is aimed at catalyzing more ambitious action.

Ahead of that gathering, the Biden administration has said it will unveil a more aggressive plan to cut U.S. emissions — probably around 50 percent by the end of the decade, compared with 2005 levels. That would basically double the goal first put forth by President Barack Obama as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Kerry met with Xie Zhenhua, the veteran Chinese negotiator who previously forged critical deals with the United States, including one that helped to secure global support for the Paris accord. Countries pledged then to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels and possibly keep to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“If we can all hold to 1.5 [Celsius], we’re setting a good example for a lot of other countries as they make choices,” Kerry told The Washington Post during a visit this month to India. “Obviously, we would love to see China join in that. China is funding coal in various parts of the world, and we need to address that.”

Tracking Biden's environmental actions

China has pledged in the past to make 2030 its peak year for greenhouse gas emissions and in recent months also promised to reach net zero emissions by 2060. But how the world’s biggest emitter plans to make that happen remains unclear.

In a joint statement Saturday evening, Kerry and Xie said they would seek ways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to “taking enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s in the context of the Paris Agreement with the aim of keeping the above temperature limit within reach.”

The two also said their countries would take short-term actions, such as helping developing nations fund the transition to more sustainable energy sources and phasing down production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

This fall, nations around the world are expected to show up at a key United Nations summit in Glasgow, Scotland, with more robust pledges than the ones they made in Paris six years ago. But their degree of ambition remains uncertain.

By all accounts, the world remains far off target from the Paris goals, and a U.N. analysis found that even countries’ updated pledges are not nearly bold enough to alter the current trajectory of warming.

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