U.S. and China announce surprise climate agreement at COP26 summit

Originally published on December 14, 2021 11:45 am

The United States and China — the world's top two greenhouse gas-emitting countries, which together account for about 40% of the world's annual carbon output — announced Wednesday they have agreed to cooperate on limiting emissions to address the global climate crisis.

The agreement, announced at the United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, aims to accelerate emissions reductions toward the goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. That accord held governments worldwide responsible for emissions cuts that would keep the global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) relative to preindustrial times, with a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

"It's beneficial not only to our two countries but the world as a whole that two major powers in the world, China and the U.S., shoulder special international responsibilities and obligations," Chinese special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua told reporters at a news conference. "We need to think big and be responsible."

At a time when China and the U.S. are at odds over other international issues, the agreement declares an intent to take "concrete actions" on emissions reductions and limitations. The two countries would share policy and technology development, announce new national targets for 2035 by the year 2025 and revive a "multilateral" working group on climate change.

"I'm absolutely convinced that that is the fastest, best way to get China to move from where it is today," said U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry in an interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro.

China's special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, speaks during the joint U.S.-China statement at the COP26 climate summit.
Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

A joint pledge, but a lack of specificity

Kerry acknowledged that the new agreement in itself is not enough to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement, but he defended its ability to stimulate mutual accountability and action.

"It's the fastest we can get at this moment here in Glasgow, but it's the first time China and the United States have stood up — the two biggest emitters in the world — and said, 'We're going to work together to accelerate the reduction,' " Kerry said.

"Yesterday was bigger than some people think," he said separately.

Much of the language in the agreement remains unquantified. For instance, China pledges to draw down its coal consumption and to "make best efforts to accelerate this work."

Kerry said China's willingness to cooperate, its current state of emissions and its history of "outperforming its own goals" makes this agreement more ambitious than its critics realize. He also pointed out the importance of the agreement to reduce methane emissions. It is the first time the Chinese government has pledged to address the issue, and it's one the U.S. announced new rules for this month.

"If we've reached the goal that we have set for 30% reduction of methane by 2030," Kerry said, "that is the equivalent of taking all the cars in the world, all of the trucks in the world, all of the airplanes in the world, all ships in the world, down to zero. That's how big it is. That's what's on the table."

Kerry also expressed confidence that the terms of this agreement and COP26 would translate to action.

"The key to Glasgow is not the words here," he said. "It's the promises and goals that have been made and the implementation. And we're going to become an implementation force in the aftermath of this meeting."

The U.S. role in the global picture

Kerry also addressed criticism from representatives of nations that are among the most vulnerable to climate change, as well as questions about U.S. leadership on climate issues.

Developing nations have called for wealthy nations to uphold a 2009 pledge made at a U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, to channel $100 billion per year to less wealthy countries to help them adapt to climate change. Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate says that in 2021, that promise has not yet been delivered.

"And it's so unfair to countries on the front lines of a climate crisis that this climate finance has been delayed for more years," she told NPR this week.

"I hope she won't hold the Biden administration responsible for Donald Trump," Kerry responded. "The reason there hasn't been money in the last few years is Donald Trump shut it off — he pulled out of the Paris Agreement. But from the moment President Biden has come into office, he has been fixated on helping provide that money."

Kerry also said that his talks with the six largest banks in the U.S. and conversations with philanthropists and foundations would result in funding measured in the trillions of dollars.

Kerry also answered questions about the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass Biden's domestic spending plan, which includes funding to address climate change. He acknowledged that having completed legislation to show off "helps, no question" in international credibility, but expressed confidence that it would not hurt the negotiation process. He also predicted it would pass "in the next two weeks."

"I think the [climate] issue itself [is] so compelling that people are ready to respond to the actions people say they're willing to take," Kerry said. "And the United States, by the way, has pretty good bona fides on that. Because we've done what we've said we're going to do in terms of these things."

As the COP26 summit entered its final day, Kerry said he hoped for reasonable cooperation and consensus. He also spoke on the need to provide funding to address a world already being affected by climate change.

"We need to help countries adapt. There needs to be greater focus on adaptation," he said. "Yes, it does mean committing money ... money and technology and assistance. We're prepared to do that. We also need strong mitigation, because if you don't mitigate enough, you'll never be able to adapt your way out of this problem."

Kerry acknowledged the moral responsibility of the U.S. to provide solutions to climate change, given its history of contributing to the problem.

"And, yes, we have a fundamental moral obligation to do this," Kerry said. "Because we are the richest country on the planet. We're the second-largest emitter, and we've been doing this for a long time. And the accumulated results of what we've been doing are up in the atmosphere causing damage, and we need to pay attention to that."

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These climate summits are often predictable, but yesterday brought a surprise. The world's two largest carbon emitters, the U.S. and China, announced a joint declaration. Together, they account for 40% of the world's annual carbon output. And while the existence of this statement is good news, the details are not nearly as aggressive as advocates would like. U.S, climate envoy John Kerry negotiated the deal and announced it last night, and today he is sitting down with us. Secretary Kerry, good to see you here in Scotland.

JOHN KERRY: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Last night, you called the declaration a step we can build on and said, we have a long journey ahead of us. But the world has very little time to make that journey. And this document does not look like a sprint to zero carbon that scientists say is necessary. So what do you say to people who look at the text of this statement and say this is not ambitious enough to avoid catastrophe?

KERRY: I say that they're not taking account of what the complications are for China and where China's beginning. I disagree that this is not a sprint. Of course it's a sprint, and we got language in there that specifically says, with respect to carbon dioxide emissions, that China will make every best effort to accelerate the transition.

SHAPIRO: Best effort to accelerate seems to leave a lot of room.

KERRY: Well, of course it leaves room. But you know, they've put out a group of targets. They don't want to stand up and say, oh, our targets are wrong. But the fact is because they're willing to cooperate with us, I'm absolutely convinced that that is the fastest, best way to get China to move from where it is today. I also believe that China has a good habit of outperforming its own goals.

SHAPIRO: They like the under-promise and overdeliver.

KERRY: Under-promise, overdeliver - so...

SHAPIRO: You're saying this is the fastest we could get. Is it fast enough to get the world....

KERRY: No, it's not.

SHAPIRO: ...To 1.5 degrees?

KERRY: It's the fastest we could get at this moment here in Glasgow. But it's the first time China and the United States have stood up, the two biggest emitters in the world, and said, we're going to work together to accelerate the reduction.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you broadly about how this summit has been going. We've been talking with a lot of people from developing countries, from some of the countries most at risk from climate change. And Colin Young is executive director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre. His countries - the countries he represents face an existential risk right now from storms, floods, rising seas. And he told me this summit has been disappointing, largely because of what he sees as a lack of ambition from big emitters like the U.S.

COLIN YOUNG: What we are seeing is a lot of talk, a lot of posturing. What leaders are saying and what's happening in the negotiating rooms are very, very different. Special interests are being protected, and efforts to get the kind of collective actions needed to keep global temperatures below 1.5 is not happening.

SHAPIRO: How do you respond to Colin Young?

KERRY: Well, I'm afraid Colin hasn't somehow taken stock of the fact that 65% of global GDP has put forward specific plans which have been certified by the IPCC and the IEA and others who look at them and measure them that are going to keep us on a 1.5 track. (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: But he's talking about the difference between words and actions. And commitments only go so far.

KERRY: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no, no. I don't accept that. These things are happening. President Biden stood up and announced that by 2030, 50% of the automobiles sold in America will be electric. Ford...

SHAPIRO: He also announced that the...

KERRY: Ford Motor...

SHAPIRO: ...Build Back Better plan will cut climate emissions, and that hasn't passed Congress.

KERRY: Well, I'll bet it does in the next two weeks. And I'll bet that these things - look at the infrastructure. It has passed. Everybody can look at this and say, oh, the glass is half empty, or you can look at it and see the glass half full. I see it half full coming out of here because I have never seen so much corporate engagement because we need trillions of dollars - you know, involved in this for 30 years on this issue, and I've never seen as much focus and effort as there is now. Now, is it enough? We don't know till people fully engage in the implementation.


KERRY: The key to Glasgow is not the words here. It's the promises and goals that have been made and the implementation, and we're going to become an implementation force in the aftermath of this meeting.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that a lot of people here at COP26 have asked you about Congress' failure to pass President Biden's domestic spending plan. And I know you believe that it will pass. But does the fact that you came here without that in hand show a disconnect between the words and actions of the U.S. on climate? And if so, how do you overcome what seems to be a credibility problem on this?

KERRY: Well, people understand that passing legislation is hard. It takes time. But the fact is that the president's been steady. He's shown tremendous leadership and patience, I might add. And I believe it's going to pay off.

SHAPIRO: Do your counterparts from other countries believe it?

KERRY: I think a lot of them do. I don't think everyone does. But I think a lot of them are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. But this is not going to be decided by whether a bill is passed in Congress or not.

SHAPIRO: No, but it speaks to American credibility and leadership.

KERRY: It helps.


KERRY: It helps - no question. Would I have preferred to have it? Yes. But I'm not - we don't have it yet. I think we will because we've done what we've said we're going to do in terms of these things.

SHAPIRO: Developing countries are laser-focused on getting money that they were promised through climate finance. This was an agreement reached during the Obama administration, and I spoke with a young activist from Uganda named Vanessa Nakate. Here's what she told me.

VANESSA NAKATE: They made a promise of $100 billion climate finance to be given to vulnerable countries. But we are in 2021, and that promise has not yet been delivered. And it's so unfair to countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis that this climate finance has been delayed.

SHAPIRO: What do you say to Vanessa Nakate?

KERRY: I don't think she's accurate in what she has just said, and I hope she won't hold the Biden administration responsible for Donald Trump. The reason there hasn't been money in the last three years is Donald Trump shut it off. He pulled out of the Paris Agreement. But from the moment President Biden has come into office, he has been fixated on helping to provide that money. He doubled the amount of money that we were going to put in in April. And in September, recognizing it still wasn't getting there, he doubled that. We will be very focused on it after this COP closes. And we're going to be working at it, marrying money to projects, to countries. And I think we can accelerate this very significantly.

SHAPIRO: The last question I want to ask you, Secretary Kerry - you've been a U.S. leader for a very long time. And for many years, the U.S. was the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. Do you think the U.S. has a moral obligation to be the solution to this problem, having been such a large contributor to the problem?

KERRY: Morally, I think we have a big responsibility to help lead and to do everything we can to meet the goals that can win the battle. But no one country can do this alone. That's why this meeting in Glasgow's so important. This is the ultimate multilateral major negotiation, and it's not easy. It's never easy. They're in very different places. They have very different economies. But we can't afford to have a difference on another issue get in the way of our ability to work together to deal with climate.

SHAPIRO: Climate envoy John Kerry. Secretary Kerry, it's been so good to talk with you. Thank you very much for meeting with us here in Glasgow.

KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.