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US, China agree to replace fossil fuels with increased renewable energy

The United States and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, have agreed to jointly fight global warming by increasing wind, solar and other renewable energy in a bid to replace fossil fuels.

The announcement comes as President Biden prepares to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday for their first face-to-face discussion in a year. The climate agreement could emerge as a positive point in negotiations which are expected to focus on sensitive issues such as Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas.

Statements of cooperation released separately on Tuesday by the United States and China do not include China’s promise to phase out its heavy use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, or to stop permitting and building new coal-fired power plants. This has been a sticking point for the United States during months of talks with Beijing on climate change.

But the two countries agreed to “continue efforts to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030.” This growth should reach levels high enough “to accelerate the substitution of coal, oil and gas production,” the agreement specifies. Both countries expect “a significant absolute reduction in energy sector emissions” over this decade, it says. This appears to be the first time China has agreed to specific emissions targets in any sector of its economy.

The agreement comes two weeks before representatives from nearly 200 countries converge in Dubai as part of the United Nations climate negotiations, known as COP28. The United States and China have major roles to play as nations debate whether to phase out fossil fuels.

“This lays the groundwork for negotiations in Dubai,” said David Sandalow, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, now a researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “This sends a strong signal to other countries that this language works and, more broadly, that differences can be overcome. »

The agreement does not specify how China will eliminate fossil fuels from its electricity grid. While the United States has replaced some of its fossil fuels by increasing solar and wind power, China has built more renewables than any other country, but has also built new coal-fired power plants at the same time.

Still, many of these Chinese coal plants are not expected to operate at full capacity and the International Energy Agency predicted last month that China’s coal consumption would decline over the next few years, and perhaps from next year.

A analysis by CarbonBrief, a UK-based energy publication, found that China’s emissions are expected to decline next year, having rebounded from a decline due to coronavirus restrictions. This is partly due to “record installations of low-carbon electricity” which the analysis suggests could be enough to meet growing electricity demand.

Sandalow said replacing fossil fuels as outlined in the U.S.-China deal would allow the countries to share knowledge as they both work to add more renewable energy to their electricity networks and to invest in energy storage and better transport.

“That is the nature of diplomatic declarations, they are not legally binding documents but declarations of intent,” Mr Sandalow said. But he added: “In my experience, neither the US government nor the Chinese government makes high-profile statements like this unless there are serious plans to implement the agreement. »

Earlier this month, John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, met with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, at Sunnylands in California to lay the groundwork for the deal announced Tuesday evening.

“The United States and China recognize that the climate crisis is affecting more and more countries around the world. » Sunnylands Declaration on strengthening cooperation to tackle the climate crisis said.

“Both countries underline the importance of COP 28 to meaningfully respond to the climate crisis during this critical decade and beyond” and commit in the declaration “to tackling one of the greatest challenges of our time for present and future generations of humanity.”

As part of the agreement, China agreed to set reduction targets for all greenhouse gas emissions. This is important because China’s current climate target only addresses carbon dioxide, leaving out methane, nitrous oxide and other gases that act as a blanket around the planet.

Methane is emitted by oil and gas operations as well as coal mines and can be 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term. Greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide account for a fifth of China’s emissions. Methane makes up about half of that, and other gases like hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and nitrous oxide make up the rest.

The Chinese government last week released a long-awaited plan to combat methane, but analysts dismissed it as ineffective because it lacked emissions reduction targets.

The Sunnylands Agreement also lacks targets, but says the two countries will work together to set them.

China has refused to join the Global Mthane Pledge, an agreement between more than 150 countries, led by the United States and Europe, which promises to collectively reduce emissions by 30% by 2030.

The United States and China also agreed that in the next round of climate commitments – which the countries are expected to present in 2025 – China will set targets for reducing emissions across its economy. Its current commitment projects that carbon dioxide emissions will peak before 2030, but does not specify how high they could reach before the curve begins to bend or by how much emissions could be reduced.

President Xi also pledged that China will become carbon neutral by 2060, meaning it will not produce more carbon emissions than it can offset.

Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, welcomed the U.S.-China deal and called it a “foundation for ambition” ahead of the United Nations climate summit in Dubai.

“This sends a powerful message of cooperation in the face of the existential challenge of our time,” Mr. Bapna said. “What is important now is that both countries respect today’s commitment.”

The deal is the product of months of negotiations between Mr. Kerry, 79, and Mr. Xie, 73, friends and sparring partners on climate for more than 25 years. Both came out of retirement to become climate envoys for their countries and advocated within their governments for climate change diplomacy. Mr Xie, who suffered a stroke last year, is expected to retire after the UN summit in Dubai.

Their negotiations stalled in 2022 after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, a move seen as provocative by Beijing. Then, earlier this year, a U.S. warplane shot down a Chinese spy balloon that was floating over the continental United States.

In July, as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to improve relations, Mr. Kerry visited Beijing.

This effort was unsuccessful. Mr. Xi used Mr. Kerry’s visit to deliver a speech declaring that China would never allow itself to be “influenced by others” on its climate goals.

Yet Mr. Kerry said optimistically at the time that “we are laying the groundwork” for a deal.

When it comes to climate change, no relationship is as important as that between the United States and China.

The United States, the largest climate polluter in history, and China, the current largest polluter, together account for 38% of global greenhouse gases.

This means that both countries’ drive to urgently reduce their emissions will essentially determine whether the countries can limit the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Scientists say this is the threshold beyond which increasingly severe wildfires, floods, heat and drought will exceed humanity’s capacity to adapt. The planet has already warmed by 1.2 degrees.

But neither the United States nor China will act quickly if the other does not. Both countries are taking steps to tackle emissions, but hardliners in each country argue the other is not doing enough, and each country has called the other’s climate pledges insincere.

While the United States has reduced emissions, Chinese officials have said the U.S. goal of reducing pollution by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of this decade is insufficient, and some officials questioned whether the United States could even reach it.

Chinese leaders are also keenly aware of the partisan divide in the United States on climate change and have little confidence that a future administration will deliver on the promises made by Mr. Biden. Most Republican presidential candidates refuse to recognize the established science of climate changeand front-runner Donald Trump has promised to end climate action and encourage more oil drilling, fracking and coal mining.

U.S. lawmakers, by contrast, note that China’s emissions continue to rise and that the country has so far only promised to peak before 2030 and then maintain a plateau before falling. This is unacceptable to most members of Congress, who believe that China, the world’s second-largest economy, should grow at a pace similar to that of the United States.

The Chinese government released a plan on November 10 to pay large annual bonuses to power utilities to keep coal-fired power generation capacity available to meet increases in electricity demand, even if it is rarely used. Mr. Xi has long emphasized energy security and self-reliance.

This emphasis increased after the 2021 heatwave coincided with the closure of many coal-fired power plants. Power outages followed in many cities, with office workers forced to flee down long staircases and a chemical plant exploding, injuring dozens of workers.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Beijing.

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