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The world’s two biggest polluters have made a positive “gesture” to co-operate on climate change, with the US and China agreeing to accelerate the rollout of renewable energy to displace their heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
The joint statement on climate diplomacy between Washington and Beijing came shortly before Joe Biden and Xi Jinping were due to meet in San Francisco as part of an effort to stabilise US-China relations.
It was taken as a sign of progress in global climate policy ahead of the UN COP28 climate summit in Dubai in two weeks, despite the absence of any reference to the looming issue of the phaseout of fossil fuels.
“This is not as big as the agreement before Paris . . . but I think this is a significant statement. It really does signal that both countries want substantive progress,” said Alden Meyer of the E3G climate policy think-tank.
The two countries backed the key goal of tripling renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, saying they would “sufficiently accelerate renewable energy in their respective economies through 2030” to “accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation”.
The most specific commitment from the two sides was to advance “at least” five “large-scale” carbon capture, utilisation and storage projects each by 2030.
Both countries also agreed to include a broader array of greenhouse gases in their existing 2035 climate targets, including methane and nitrous oxide.
This was regarded as a breakthrough by climate experts, as previous commitments by China covered only carbon dioxide. This agreement was “striking”, said David Waskow of the World Resources Institute think-tank.
“China is the world’s largest methane emitter and serious actions to curb this gas is essential for slowing global warming in the near term,” he added.
The step forward to tackle methane emissions follows extended meetings between US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua for five days last week.
China said afterwards that it would improve its monitoring and tracking of methane emissions by 2030.
The two climate envoys have had a long association, and 73-year-old Xie is expected to retire at the end of the year after COP28.
“This statement is a gesture towards progress in G20 climate action but we are certainly not yet in the clear,” said Yuan Ying, Greenpeace east Asia’s chief China representative.
The phaseout of fossil fuels remains the big point of contention among the almost 200 countries at COP28.
While China is the world’s largest producer of renewable energy and dominates solar and wind technology, it is consuming significant amounts of coal to meet its energy needs.
China reported that wind and solar alone accounted for about 14 per cent of electricity consumption in 2022, while in the US renewable energy made up about 13 per cent of total US energy consumption in that year.
Kerry recently criticised Asian economies for increasing coal production. China, India and Indonesia are all big coal consumers.
In September, Zhenhua told Chinese diplomats that it was “not realistic to phase out all fossil fuels”. But he added that carbon-capture technology could be used to lower the emissions when fossil fuels are burnt.
Capture of carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes or power generation for re-use or storage in bedrock or under the ocean is being promoted by heavy polluters as a way of reducing emissions.
The captured CO₂ can also be used in so-called enhanced oil operations, where the gas is pumped into ageing oilfields to increase crude output.
The technology is not operating anywhere at significant scale, although China is attempting its own development at various oilfields and the US has included tax credits available to companies using the technology as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
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