China and US agree to ‘co-operate’ on climate change in Cop26 breakthrough

Draft provides momentum for negotiations ahead as developing states cite weaknesses

China and US have announced at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow that they are to work together across a wide range of climate issues.

The initiative was confirmed by China’s main negotiator at the UN summit, Xie Zhenhua, and comes despite tensions arising from president Xi Jinping not attending in person, and criticism of China’s climate response from US president Joe Biden.

Mr Xie said climate change was “a common challenge faced by humanity and was an existential threat”. There was “more agreement than divergence between China and US on the climate issue”, he said, telling a meeting of leaders and negotiators he hoped this new declaration would help make Cop26 a success.

The US and China are to focus on a wide range of actions including “the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane”, arising from the fossil and waste sectors, “as well as incentives and programmes to reduce methane from the agricultural sector”.


Recognising that eliminating global illegal deforestation would contribute meaningfully to the effort to reach the Paris goals, the two countries welcome the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. The two sides intend to engage collaboratively in support of eliminating global illegal deforestation through effectively enforcing respective laws on banning illegal imports.

Responding to the pact, chief executive of think tank E3G Nick Mabey said: “The big significance of this is geopolitical. US and China have signalled they will end the wars of words that marred the past days. They will now build climate co-operation bilaterally and in multilateral fora. This high-profile commitment puts pressure on both countries to move their positions to make Cop26 a success.”

As it moves into its final hours, a first draft text on an agreement has included historic commitments to phasing out coal and subsidies for fossil fuels – and calls on countries to strengthen targets in cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022.

The document underscores concerns of climate experts and activists that there is a yawning gap between current national pledges and the kinds of emission cuts required to keep the world from avoiding catastrophic climate impacts.

While the coal and fossil fuel commitments are a first in a Cop text, according to negotiators, there was no timeline for these actions. Developing states supported by Ireland highlighted weaker elements on climate finance, adaptation and “loss and damage” – critical requirements for poorer countries.

The text is undergoing significant revisions as countries fight over the language, but already it reinforces the need to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees – a key priority for the UK government as Cop26 host.

Basis for negotiations

Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said the text formed a basis for negotiations. “It needs to be added to. We need more ambition, on how we reduce emissions, how we provide climate finance, how we protect biodiversity at the same time.”

He confirmed he had been asked to represent the EU in bilateral discussions on transparency to ensure there was clear indication if emissions reductions were working.

At a meeting of the Higher Ambition Coalition on Wednesday, he said the clear message from vulnerable small island states was: “We have to do this. We have to do it now. We have to strengthen and hold the line.”

While the draft was not enough, he said, there was a real concern in the EU team that elements might be cut, especially new elements on tackling the crisis. Increased ambition and strong language was needed, “reinforced by science indicating the world is a worse place”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney believed the text was a reasonable start. “I think we will see an increased emphasis trying to ensure particularly wealthy countries make clear commitments on 1.5 degrees. The text is reasonably strong on that,” he added.

With that target in mind, a roadmap was required to ensure temperature rise was kept within that limit this century, he said. “But it’s another thing delivering on that. What this week needs to do is create the sense of urgency and, quite frankly, crisis around what’s happening.”

This would allow governments to sell the kind of lifestyle change that would have to be delivered this decade around “how we move around; how we generate power, how we produce food”, Mr Coveney said. It was important to see this as an opportunity to improve quality of life, protect nature and biodiversity and ensure Ireland played its global part in keeping temperatures where they needed to be, he said.

Mr Coveney took part in a series of meetings with small island states on enhancing adaptation elements, and on ensuring the role oceans can play in helping to reduce emissions while protecting marine biodiversity is reflected more strongly in the final declaration.

Dr Tara Shine, a UN co-facilitator on a dialogue between scientists and policymakers at Cop26, said it was difficult to interpret what might the likely shape of a final declaration at this point. There were “no decides to” in the document yet. While decisions had been made in technical discussions on the Paris rulebook, transparency and climate finance, these are informing the political part of Cop26, which needed to be firmed up over the coming 48 hours.

Siobhán Curran, head of policy and advocacy with Trocaire said there were positive elements on loss and damage but will need to go a lot further with more on how climate finance will be sourced and channelled to poorer states. “Detail is key,” she added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times