US and China unveil emissions deal in bid to save UN climate talks

GLASGOW (REUTERS) – The United States and China, the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, unveiled a deal to ramp up cooperation tackling climate change, including by cutting methane emissions, phasing out coal consumption and protecting forests.

The framework agreement was announced by US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua at the UN climate conference in Scotland and was billed by both as way to tip the summit towards success.

The head of the UN climate conference had earlier recognised that countries’ climate commitments so far in the talks would do too little to tame global warming and urged them to “get to work” to strike an ambitious deal over the remaining two days of talks.

“Together we set out our support for a successful COP26, including certain elements which will promote ambition,” Kerry told a news conference about the deal between Washington and Beijing.

“Every step matters right now and we have a long journey ahead of us.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Xie Zhenhua told reporters that the deal would see China strengthen its emissions-cutting targets.

“Both sides will work jointly and with other parties to ensure a successful COP26 and to facilitate an outcome that is both ambitious and balanced,” Xie said.

A first draft of the COP26 deal, released earlier in the day received a mixed response from climate activists and experts.

Almost 200 countries present in Glasgow have until the close of the two-week meeting on Friday to agree a final text.

In an implicit acknowledgment that current pledges were insufficient to avert climate catastrophe, the draft asks countries to “revisit and strengthen” by the end of next year their targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 2030.

EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans told Reuters the US-China agreement gave room for hope.

“It’s really encouraging to see that those countries that were at odds in so many areas have found common ground on what is the biggest challenge humanity faces today,” he said.

“It shows also that the US and China know this subject transcends other issues. And it certainly helps us here at COP to come to an agreement.”

Negotiations are still likely to be fierce over the next two days.

While some developed countries point the finger at major polluters such as China, India and Russia, poorer nations accuse the rich world of failing to keep promises of financial help for them to deal with the ravages of climate change.

As delegations locked horns over the wording of the final statement, another Glasgow pledge saw a group of countries, companies and cities committing to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles by 2040.

The overarching goal of the conference is to keep alive hopes of capping global temperatures at 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels, which is far out of reach on the basis of countries’ current emissions cutting pledges.

That aspirational target was set at the landmark 2015 Paris accord. Since then, scientific evidence has grown that crossing the 1.5 deg C threshold would unleash significantly worse sea level rises, floods, droughts, wildfires and storms than those already occurring, with irreversible consequences.

Phase out coal

The draft document urged countries to speed up efforts to stop burning coal and to phase out fossil fuel subsidies – taking direct aim at the coal, oil and gas that produce carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to manmade climate change, though it did not set a fixed date for phasing them out.

By locking in rules to require countries to upgrade their pledges next year – a key request from nations most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – it aims to keep the 1.5 deg C target in sight.

Sharma said he would not seek an extension of the conference beyond Friday’s scheduled closure.

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Soberingly, the Climate Action Tracker research group said on Tuesday that all the national pledges submitted so far to cut greenhouse gases by 2030 would, if fulfilled, allow the Earth’s temperature to rise 2.4 deg C by 2100.

Greenpeace dismissed the draft as an inadequate response to the climate crisis, calling it “a polite request that countries maybe, possibly, do more next year”.

Helen Mountford, a vice-president at the World Resources Institute, said the explicit reference to fossil fuels was an advance on previous climate summits, and warned big emitters may try to expunge it as talks continue.

“The real issue is going to be whether it can be kept in,” she said.

Who pays?

The final text will not be legally binding, but will carry the political weight of the nearly 200 countries that signed the Paris Agreement.

The draft dodges poorer countries’ demands for assurances that rich nations provide far more money to help them curb their emissions and cope with the consequences of rising temperatures.

It “urges” developed countries to “urgently scale up” aid to help poorer ones adapt to climate change, and says more funding needs to take the form of grants, rather than loans that burden poor nations with more debt.

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But it does not include a new plan for delivering that money – prompting climate-vulnerable island states to say they would push in the final negotiations for clearer commitments.

“The level of ambition required to keep 1.5 within reach is not reflected yet in the finance texts,” Sonam Phuntsho Wangdi, who chairs the least developed countries group in the UN climate talks, told the conference on Wednesday.

Rich nations failed to meet a pledge made in 2009 to give poorer countries US$100 billion (S$130 billion) a year in climate finance by 2020, and now expect to deliver it three years late. That broken promise has damaged trust, and prompted poor countries to seek tougher rules for future funding.

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