China and the US on Wednesday made a dramatic last-minute deal on the sidelines of Cop26 to co-operate on climate change in a bid to help claim success at the summit.
The deal could unlock difficult negotiations toward a successful conclusion to the conference, which Boris Johnson said was hanging “in the balance”.
It included pledges from Beijing on tackling methane and deforestation, a joint recognition of the “seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis”, and to cut emissions in the next 10 years, but had little detailed policy.
The move was seen partly as a bid for the two big powers to claim a major role during the last days of the summit, during which action from both has been lacking.
“The two largest economies in the world have agreed to work together to raise climate ambition in this decisive decade,” John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said on Wednesday night.
It came hours after the UK released its draft text for the final agreement at the end of the summit, calling for major polluting countries including China to return with more ambitious climate plans next year, and for a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies and coal.
Mr Johnson made a brief, last-minute visit to Glasgow in a bid to rally the final days of talks, which are due to end on Friday but expected to run into the weekend.
“We need to pull out all the stops if we’re going to do what we came here to do, and keep 1.5C alive,” the Prime Minister said.
“If we fail to deliver, the backlash from people will be immense and it will be long-lasting and frankly, we will deserve their criticism.”
But he added: “The Cop26 summit here in Glasgow is not going to fix climate change in one go. We’re not going to arrest climate change right here, right now. That is just impossible.”
Getting countries to return as soon as next year with updated plans to cut emissions before 2030 is seen as one of the best ways to limit warming, but is likely to prove controversial with major emitters.
The text will go through several revisions before a final document is released over the weekend, when it will become more clear whether the UK Government has achieved its aims at the summit to “keep 1.5C alive”.
Xi Jinping, the president of China, did not attend Cop26
Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo
One veteran observer of the talks said that the joint China-US deal would help to reach a final agreement at the talks because it would prevent Beijing blocking significant elements of the text.
The countries have repeatedly thrown criticism at each other throughout the summit, with Joe Biden, the US President, saying Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, had made a “big mistake” by not attending.
“The US and China have signalled they will end the wars of words that has marred Cop26,” said Nick Mabey, the founder of climate change think tank E3G. “This high-profile commitment to urgent climate action puts pressure on both countries to make Glasgow a success.”
The move risks stealing the limelight from the UK, which as the host of Cop26 is expected to be praised for success at the summit.
The race to reduce pollution
The US-China deal was announced shortly after Mr Johnson urged countries to co-operate, and on the same day that the UK released its draft agreement text, which reflects a compromise between competing priorities of all countries in Glasgow.
The call for countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and coal would be the first time they were mentioned in an agreement at the summit.
But the call appeared likely to be among the first casualties of the negotiations, with India and Saudi Arabia both rejecting the wording on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson declined to single out countries that were failing to co-operate during the talks on Wednesday, saying: “Everybody knows who needs to do what.”
The US-China deal was cautiously welcomed by the UK, as well as green groups and diplomatic observers.
Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s climate spokesman, said it was welcome, “but you will have to give us time to digest the detail of what they are calling their declaration”.