Can COP28 build on the surprise US-China climate deal?

Can COP28 build on the surprise US-China climate deal?

Can COP28 build on the surprise US-China climate deal?
John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua meet in Beijing, China, July 17, 2023. (Reuters)
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After a seemingly unending wave of bad news about global efforts to tackle climate change, finally some good news has come — and that too from one of the least-expected but most-needed quarters.

This month’s US-China deal on climate change, which arrived after days of discussions between US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua in California, was certainly a surprise because it came at a time when the overall ties between the two nations seemed to be at a historic low.

The two countries have been engaged in a battle of words and activities covering a vast range of spheres, including trade and geostrategic affairs, notably the growing power of China in the South China Sea, and the discomfort that the US feels over the near-total hegemony that Beijing seems to have developed over key products like semiconductors and electronics, as well as raw materials like lithium, nickel and copper.

With the two sides engaged in tit-for-tat sanctions, as well as daily haranguing over numerous issues, it is perhaps a miracle that the two climate envoys managed to come up with a deal at all.

It would have been far easier for the leaders of both China and the US to walk away from any deal and blame the other party for wrecking the discussions. Yet, they fortunately and wisely put aside their differences and decided to cooperate on issues that are critical not just for them but the entire world. Their cooperation is vital if the world is to stand any real chance of succeeding in slowing down climate change.

For now, the success is merely symbolic, as the two nations have agreed to revive their bilateral climate working group to discuss areas of cooperation ahead of the COP28 climate change summit, which gets underway in Dubai on Thursday.

The two nations also said they would support a new global target for renewable energy production and work together on curbing methane and plastic pollution. For the first time, both the US and China will outline actions and set targets for phasing down methane emissions, which is also a significant step as methane is hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming and its emissions have been rising around the world, mainly stemming from agriculture and oil and gas exploration.

In this context, it is also encouraging to note that the US, China and COP28 host the UAE will jointly organize a methane and non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases summit in Dubai.

While significant differences remain between the US and China over the phasing out of fossil fuels and how the world must pay for it, the fact that the two have already taken their positions at the negotiating tables ahead of the Dubai summit is perhaps the best news that has come out in the run up to COP28.

Indeed, the past few months have seen a string of bad news stories and alarming reports emerge on climate change and the actions taken by governments around the world to fight it and curb their emissions.

In terms of bad news, the biggest headline-grabbing development came from the UK, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in a vain bid to woo Conservative voters ahead of a by-election, promised to tone down British carbon emissions targets — a move that has come in for sound criticism not only from global environmental activists, but also several British leaders. It is, of course, a moot point now that Sunak’s party has lost the by-election, but the PM has stayed firm on his decision to review and revise downward the British ambition to curb carbon emissions.

The British decision stands out for its poor timing and horrible messaging: that politicians do not mind sacrificing their countries’ international commitments for as minor an issue as a by-election. But the UK is far from the only country going easy on its commitments. A report released last week by the UN said that, collectively, the actions and commitments made by governments around the world are far too minimal to be effective in the battle to slow down climate change, let alone reverse global warming.

The report says that the latest study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut 43 percent by 2030, compared to 2019 levels. However, this downward progression has not yet begun and, as of 2022, global emissions were still rising, making the task of cutting them by 43 percent in the next seven years a real uphill, if not impossible, task. At best, the UN stated, the world can expect to have emissions that are not rising beyond 2019 levels in 2030 and, if all the national commitments are met, then they can be 2 percent below 2019 levels at the end of this decade.

The past few months have seen a string of bad news stories and alarming reports emerge on climate change.

Ranvir S. Nayar

This shows the distance that the world has to go, even though the route to get there is pretty well known. The rich world has to honor its numerous commitments and promises, not just in cutting its own emissions in a faster and bolder manner, but also in terms of stepping up the finance and technology the rest of the world needs to curb its own emissions and deal with the severe impacts of climate change. After all, this crisis is almost entirely due to the way the Western economies have been run for the past two centuries.

These stern warnings will once again set the stage for another climate change summit. It remains to be seen if the little burst of positive momentum generated by the US-China agreement can create a wave of similar cooperative and responsible approaches by other industrialized economies. For the sake of the world, one can only hope that other global leaders do pay heed to the developments between Washington and Beijing when they gather in Dubai.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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