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Can a China-U.S. pact to boost climate cooperation help get COP26 off "life support"?

Protesters demand more action on climate change
Protesters demand more action on climate change 01:51

Glasgow, Scotland — The world's top carbon polluters, China and the United States, agreed on Wednesday to increase their cooperation and speed up action to rein in climate-damaging emissions, signaling a mutual effort on global warming at a time of tension over their other disputes. The agreement was met with cautious optimism by others at the ongoing U.N. climate talks in Scotland, but it wasn't clear whether the bilateral deal might be enough to revive efforts for a much broader agreement at COP26, as the U.N. chief warned the conference's key objective was "on life support."

In back-to-back news conferences at COP26, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry said the two countries would work together to accelerate the emissions reductions required to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
"It's beneficial not only to our two countries but the world as a whole that two major powers in the world, China and the U.S., shoulder special international responsibilities and obligations," Xie told reporters. "We need to think big and be responsible."

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to China's Special Representative on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua (R) at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, December 12, 2015. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty

"The steps we're taking ... can answer questions people have about the pace at which China is going, and help China and us to be able to accelerate our efforts," Kerry said.

CBS News senior foreign correspondent Mark Phillips said rumors had swirled around the COP26 summit that the U.S. and China had been meeting for weeks behind the scenes to see if they could come up with a coordinated approach. The joint statement offered by the two nations on Thursday, while decidedly short on specific action, was the result.

Phillips said many at the conference welcomed the U.S.-China declaration as at least some good news, as there wasn't much else to crow about. 

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COP26 appeared increasingly unlikely to achieve its prime objective: Getting the world's biggest greenhouse gas producers to agree to cut their emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2015.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that ambitions for an agreement to meet that goal were "on life support" as the talks entered their final hours, but he added that "until the last moment, hope should be maintained."
Ahead of his speech to the summit, Guterres told The Associated Press that the negotiations in Glasgow, set to end Friday, would "very probably" not yield the carbon-cutting pledges needed to keep the planet from warming beyond the 1.5-degree threshold.

Climate COP26 Summit
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gestures during an interview at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 11, 2021. Alberto Pezzali/AP

In the joint declaration, China for the first time recognizes the need to cut back on its methane emissions, following the lead of the Biden administration's efforts to curb the potent greenhouse gas. But the country it is still on track to increase its carbon dioxide output through the current decade, and as Phillips notes, scientists have been clear that methane and C02 must both be drastically curtailed if the most severe future effects of climate change are to be averted.

Beijing and Washington agreed to share technology to reduce emissions.
In 2015, governments agreed in Paris to jointly cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep the global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, with a more stringent target of trying to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) preferred.
Both Washington and Beijing recognize that there's a gap between efforts taken globally to reduce climate pollution and the goals of the Paris deal, Xie said.
"So we will jointly strengthen climate action and cooperation with respect to our respective national situations," he said.

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A U.S.-China bilateral agreement in 2014 gave a huge push to the creation of the historic Paris accord the following year, but that cooperation stopped with the Trump administration, which pulled the U.S. out of the pact. The Biden administration brought the U.S. back into that deal, but has clashed with China on other issues such as cybersecurity, human rights and Chinese territorial claims.
"While this is not a gamechanger in the way the 2014 U.S.-China climate deal was, in many ways it's just as much of a step forward given the geopolitical state of the relationship," said Thom Woodroofe, an expert in U.S.-China climate talks. "It means the intense level of U.S.-China dialogue on climate can now begin to translate into cooperation."
The gesture of goodwill came just days after President Joe Biden blamed Chinese President Xi Jinping's and Russian President Vladimir Putin's failure to attend talks in person for the lack of more progress in climate negotiations.
The U.S. and China will also revive a working group that will "meet regularly to address the climate crisis and advance the multilateral process, focusing on enhancing concrete actions in this decade," the declaration said.

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Both Washington and Beijing intend to update the world on their new national targets for 2035 in 2025 — a move that is particularly significant for China. The declaration also said China will "make best efforts to accelerate" its plans to reduce coal consumption in the second half of this decade.
But some experts noted the deal was short on commitments that would significantly reduce heat-trapping gases.
"It's a good sign that the world's two biggest emitters can actually work together to face the biggest crisis of humanity but there's not a lot of meat there after the methane stuff,'' said Byford Tsang, a China policy analyst for the European think tank E3G.

Britain's Alok Sharma, who is chairing the COP26 negotiations, acknowledged that "significant issues remain unresolved" in the broader talks among all the nations attending the conference.
"My big, big ask of all of you is to please come armed with the currency of compromise," he told negotiators. "What we agree in Glasgow will set the future for our children and grandchildren, and I know that we will not want to fail them."

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