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U.S. and China sign agreement to work together on climate change

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GLASGOW, Scotland — The United States and China signed an agreement Wednesday at the U.N. Climate Change Conference that John Kerry called “a road map for our future collaboration” to lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

Kerry, President Biden's special envoy on climate, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, made the announcement at a press conference following a chilly diplomatic start between the two countries at the conference, also known as COP26. 

“Tonight I am pleased to announce on behalf of President Biden and Secretary Blinken that we have agreed to a basic framework for this cooperation going forward,” Kerry said, adding that the declaration “includes strong statements about the alarming science, the emissions gap and the urgent need to accelerate the actions to close that gap.”

Kerry said the agreement committed both nations to work to limit methane emissions and use their “best efforts to phase down unabated coal in this decade as fast as is achievable.” Neither the U.S. nor China signed onto a pledge joined by more than 40 nations last week to phase out coal in the 2030s. 

Last week, Biden took aim at China, saying it was a mistake for it not to send President Xi Jinping to the conference or offer bold new initiatives to curb emissions. 

“The rest of the world is going to look to China and say, ‘What value added are they providing?’” Biden said in a speech to the delegates. “And they’ve lost the ability to influence people all around the world, and all the people here at COP."

Yet Kerry told Yahoo News that he had been meeting regularly at the conference with representatives from China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Without its cooperation, the goal of keeping temperatures from surpassing 1.5°C of warming over preindustrial levels has been seen as almost impossible. While the U.S. has pledged to become net zero on emissions by 2050, China has said it would do so by 2060.

John Kerry
Climate envoy John Kerry speaks during a joint China-U.S. session at COP26 on Tuesday. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

“The effort to reduce emissions by 45 percent in this decade is a tall order, and it will require all of our nations coming together in order to achieve it,” Kerry said. “This declaration makes a statement about ... the imperative to cooperate. It declares specifically and identifies the need to accelerate the transition to a global net-zero economy.” 

Earlier at the conference, the U.S. signed a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. More than 100 nations signed that pledge, though China, one of the world's leading emitters of methane, was not one of them. 

But Kerry said China had committed to releasing a “comprehensive and ambitious national action plan on methane” by the end of 2022. 

While the lack of specifics in the agreement between the two biggest atmospheric polluters is sure to draw criticism, Kerry sought to portray it as a thawing of diplomatic relations and compared it to the U.S. nuclear pact reached with the Soviet Union in 1986. 

“This declaration is a step that we can build on in order to help close the gap. You know the expression that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’?” Kerry asked. “Well, every step matters right now, and we have a long journey ahead of us.”

Earlier in the day, Xi said China was ready to engage the U.S. in the spirit of mutual respect on a wide range of issues. 

“Right now, China-U.S. relations are at a critical historical juncture,” he said in a letter to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. “Both countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation,” Xi said in the letter. “Cooperation is the only right choice.”

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