With COP26 drawing toward its close, the world's top two global polluters — China and the US — tried to silence their naysayers with a landmark joint declaration on enhancing climate action in the 2020s with reducing methane emissions and carbon dioxide emissions high on the agenda.

“The United States and China have no shortage of differences,” US special climate envoy John Kerry said when announcing the agreement Wednesday evening.

“But on climate, co-operation is the only way to get this job done.”

The two sides intend to co-operate on regulatory frameworks and environmental standards related to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases this decade while maximising the societal benefits of the clean energy transition.

They will also focus on the deployment of key technologies such as carbon capture, storage and utilisation (CCUS) and direct air capture.

“Recognising specifically the significant role that emissions of methane play in increasing temperatures, both countries consider increased action to control and reduce such emissions to be a matter of necessity in the 2020s,” they said.

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To this end the two countries intend to co-operate to enhance the measurement of methane emissions, as well as exchanging information on their respective policies and programmes for strengthening management and control of this greenhouse gas and fostering joint research into emission reduction challenges and solutions.

“Moving forward, the United States and China welcome the significant efforts being made around the world to address the climate crisis. They nevertheless recognise that there remains a significant gap between such efforts… the two sides stress the vital importance of closing that gap as soon as possible, particularly through stepped-up efforts,” read the declaration.

To reduce CO2 emissions, the two countries intend to co-operate on a raft of measures including policies that support the effective integration of high shares of low-cost intermittent renewable energy and distributed generation policies that encourage integration of solar, storage and other clean power solutions closer to electricity users.

Action on methane

Ahead of COP27, scheduled for November 2022 in Egypt, China and the US aim to develop additional measures to enhance methane emissions control at both the national and sub-national levels.

Washington has announced the US Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan while China, in addition to its recently communicated nationally determined contribution (NDC), intends to develop a comprehensive and ambitious National Action Plan on methane, aiming to achieve a significant effect on methane emissions control and reductions in the 2020s.

Relationship reset

Also, the two nations intend to convene a meeting in the first half of next year to focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane, including through standards to reduce methane from the fossil fuels and waste industries as well as incentives and programmes to reduce methane from the agricultural sector.

More than 100 nations, including the US, last week signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% in 2030 from 2020 levels although the Beijing administration did not come on board.

Commenting on news of the bilateral US-China climate agreement in Glasgow, Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan said: “It’s always welcome news when the world’s two biggest emitters co-operate on climate change, and a reset of their relationship on this crucial issue is overdue. The climate crisis will only be solved if the US and China move toward the same goal of bringing emissions down in line with a 1.5C trajectory as a matter of urgency.”

Coal elephant in the room

The US has set a goal to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035, while China will decrease coal consumption during its 15th Five Year Plan (2026 to 2030) and make best efforts to accelerate this work.

However, neither China nor the US was a signatory to the pledge by more than 40 nations last week at COP26 to phase out coal in the 2030s.

Both nations intend to communicate their 2035 NDCs in four years’ time.

“With respect to COP26, both countries support an ambitious, balanced and inclusive outcome on mitigation, adaptation and support,” the joint statement read.

“It must send a clear signal that the Parties to the Paris Agreement are committed to tackling the climate crisis by strengthening implementation of the Agreement, reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

The US and China added the Parties must recall the Agreement’s aim to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius… “including by taking ambitious action during this critical decade to keep the above temperature limit within reach, including as necessary communicating or updating 2030 NDCs and long-term strategies”.

The two sides intend to establish a “Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s”, which will meet regularly to address the climate crisis and advance the multilateral process, focusing on enhancing concrete actions in this decade.

“So, it’s good to see these two at the table together, but if this reset is going to turn into a genuine breakthrough that builds confidence around the world, then they need to step up their level of ambition and their commitment to implementation,” Morgan added.

The joint pledge came barely two days before the scheduled conclusion of COP26, amid diminishing optimism about the chances for an agreement that could steer the world towards the Paris targets.

The absence of leaders from nations such as China, Russia and Brazil has made such an agreement less likely, and many COP26 watchers see the proliferation of announcements outside of the formal negotiations as a way for nations to ultimately avoid the kind of binding measures that are needed to reduce global emissions but which are often likely to cause disruption in established sectors of national economies.