U.S. and China In Climate Cahoots

Despite a multitude of geopolitical differences and trade disputes, the U.S. and China just announced an agreement to take joint climate action. Will it be enough to make a difference?

Earlier this week, the United States and China agreed to dramatically increase the adoption of renewable energy, phase down fossil fuels, and reduce carbon emissions.


Given that the U.S. and China are the world’s largest polluters, accounting for 38 percent of global emissions, the agreement is an important step towards reaching our climate goals. 

The two nations agreed to “pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030,” with the goal of accelerating “the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.” Both countries asserted an intention to achieve “meaningful absolute power sector emission reduction” by 2030. 

This agreement is particularly consequential because it is the first multinational agreement in which China has agreed to specific emissions targets. 

China’s current rate of renewable energy adoption exceeds that of any other country, and even though the nation continues to construct and utilize coal-fired power plants, its emissions are expected to decline in the next few years because of record-setting installations of solar arrays and wind farms (China is now installing nearly half of the world’s offshore wind energy capacity.) 

With or Without You

The agreement was more diplomatic in nature than legal, and while the language is certainly pretty, this climate commitment, like many others, lacks measurement, enforcement, accountability, and transparency measures. 

For example, it doesn’t include any promises by China to eliminate the use of coal or halt the building of new coal plants. 

However, both countries did agree to set clear reduction targets for carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gasses, which is significant given that China, the world’s largest methane emitter, has historically sidestepped establishing firm commitments for reducing methane emissions, a harmful greenhouse gas with short-term impacts that can be 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. 

Spark for COP28

The agreement sets the stage for the next round of climate talks, COP28, which will begin at the end of the month. This year’s COP meetings have been denounced by environmentalists for being held in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s biggest oil producers.

Many delegates are hoping to walk away from the COP28 meetings with concrete commitments that align with the guidelines laid out in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Roadmap, including: 

  • Tripling global renewable power capacity.
  • Doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements in the built environment.
  • Dramatically increasing the pace of electrification of homes and buildings through the adoption of heat pumps and other advanced technologies.
  • Increasing the percentage of electric vehicle sales from 13 percent to 70 percent.
  • Decreasing methane emissions from the energy sector by 75 percent.
  • Growing investments in climate action from $1.8 trillion in 2023 to $4.5 trillion annually by 2030.
  • Implementing stringent policies to spur clean energy deployment and cut fossil fuel demand by more than 25 percent by 2030 and 80 percent in 2050.
  • Ending new oil and gas projects and coal-fired power plant approvals.

These participants are also looking for clear and binding language that calls for countries to phase out fossil fuels, rather than to just scale back. Some climate experts predict that this week’s agreement between the U.S. and China will provide the pivotal spark that will finally inspire global leaders to take that step. 

Critics of the COP28 fearfully anticipate that the fossil fuel behemoths and their proxies will commandeer the meetings, using unsavory tactics to encourage delegates—especially those under the influence of fossil fuels—to back away from any kind of binding commitments. 

We can only hope that the U.S.-China agreement will open the doors to more robust discussion and solid commitments. It will be interesting to see which way the wind blows, how much force will be exerted by the fossil fuel special interests, and if world leaders have the political will to stand up to that pressure.