COP26: China and the USA put climate above what is actually a “toxic bilateral relationship” – what this can mean for the future

China causes 27 percent of global CO2 emissions, the USA 13 percent. The USA emits by far the highest per capita emissions. Both countries had so far been on the brakes in Glasgow on crucial issues.

Beijing, for example, insists that the two-degree target of the Paris Climate Agreement should remain the basis for the national voluntary commitments – and not the more ambitious 1.5-degree target. The US, on the other hand, is slowing down financial aid for poorer countries.

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On Wednesday evening, the US climate officer John Kerry and his Chinese colleague Xie Zhenhua surprised the conference participants with their bilateral agreement. “As great powers of the world, we have to live up to our responsibilities and work together,” said Xie. It was agreed to increase climate protection ambitions in this crucial decade, added Kerry.

Participants assume that the conference will be extended

The announcement could bring new momentum to the stalled talks in the last few days of COP26. The roughly 200 states are fighting for a final declaration that will keep the 1.5 degree target within reach. The voluntary commitments of the states to date are not yet sufficient for this. The conference officially ends on Friday, but participants expect the negotiations to drag on into the weekend.

China and the USA surprisingly agree on climate protection measures

The EU climate commissioner Frans Timmermans said: “The move will help us to find an agreement here at the COP.” The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, also welcomed the deal between China and the US as “an important step in the right direction “. Negotiators expressed the hope that the positive signal would increase the pressure on other brakes such as Australia and Saudi Arabia.

However, observers warned against being too optimistic. “Both countries must now also campaign for more climate protection in the final declaration of the climate conference,” said Viviane Raddatz, Head of Climate Protection and Energy Policy at WWF Germany. This includes setting improvements to the national climate targets as early as 2022. In Glasgow, things are now getting down to business.

The two superpowers had only announced a trial, but made no specific commitments, said China expert Li Shuo of the environmental organization Greenpeace. He does not expect any immediate concessions from Beijing. “If China were to give in to US demands now, it would be domestic suicide.”

Rivals are excluding the climate from their “toxic bilateral relationship”

The main importance of the pact is that the two rivals wanted to keep the climate issue out of their “toxic bilateral relationship,” said Li. Instead of watching each other, they could focus on their common enemy, climate change.

Several experts also suggested that the two countries have implicitly agreed to postpone new climate commitments after the COP. A first reason for this would be the upcoming summit meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, and further steps could follow in the coming years.

In Glasgow, on the other hand, both countries are proving to be stubborn. “China is consistently deleting any ambition regarding 1.5 degrees Celsius and phasing out fossil fuels from the text,” said David Ryfisch from Germanwatch. “The US, on the other hand, is trying to water down the formulation of climate finance.”

The COP26 will directly become the litmus test for the newly announced cooperation, said Ryfisch. “If the two largest emitters are serious, they have to explicitly support the positions of the progressive countries.”

But the bilateral advance of the superpowers also serves to circumvent the United Nations process. The two countries are thus following a trend: In the past two weeks, several coalitions of the willing have formed on different topics. A number of countries pledged to end the internal combustion engine, while others want to reduce their methane gas emissions.

These side deals are not part of the COP process, but helpful in their own right. “The agreements outside the UN process are becoming more and more important,” says Jan Kowalzig from the non-governmental organization Oxfam. Ultimately, everything helps that helps reduce global emissions. Therefore it is now interesting to see what contributions the USA and China will make in the coming years.

More: Coal phase-out, financial aid, rule book – on what the failure and success of the climate conference depend

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