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U.S. and China Restart Climate Discussions After Months-Long Silence

Tensions between the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters have been high, but the renewed talks indicate a step toward progress.

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Photo of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Photo: Alex Brandon (AP)

Communication about climate change between the United States and China screeched to a halt in August amid escalating tensions over contested Taiwan. China cut off climate cooperation at the time, but now talks have resumed, as first reported by the New York Times.

President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping met in person on Monday in Indonesia for the first time since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. The Bali meeting lasted about three hours, covered a broad set of global issues—including the threat of nuclear war—and happened just before the official beginning of the annual Group 20 (G20) summit, where leaders from 20 of the largest world economies meet.

Climate change was apparently one of the many points on the meeting agenda. “I believe, China and the United States to play key roles in addressing global challenges, from climate changes, to food insecurity, and to — for us to be able to work together,” said Biden in remarks following the meeting.

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“Humanity [is] confronted with unprecedented challenges. The world has come to a crossroads,” said Xi, who echoed Biden’s call for collaboration during difficult times. Functional communication and teamwork between the U.S. and China is critically important, especially when it comes to climate change. China and the U.S. are respectively Earth’s No. 1 and No. 2 greenhouse gas emitters, with the U.S. far ahead of China in terms of per-capita emissions. Together, the two countries produce about 40% of the world’s annual atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Prior to the three-month breakdown in diplomacy, China and the U.S. had been making joint maneuvers to reduce emissions. In 2021, political leaders from both countries announced their intentions to work together on climate policy. The U.S. and China later released a joint statement re-affirming their environmental commitments and outlining cooperative emissions and energy goals, following last year’s U.N. climate conference.

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Biden spoke at this year’s COP27 in Egypt just last week. During that speech, he outlined recent climate policy actions, like the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, and said that the U.S. government would begin requiring fossil fuel companies to address methane leaks. However, he didn’t address the idea of climate reparations—where the rich countries most responsible for climate change pay for damages in the often-poorer, most impacted nations—which is on the COP agenda for the first time. Nor did Biden announce any new goals to further reduce emissions.

Nonetheless, key diplomats and climate activists at COP27 were heartened to hear that Xi and Biden were, once again, discussing our collective planetary fate. “The two biggest emitters need to be cooperative and ambitious,” said Spain’s climate minister, Teresa Ribera, to Reuters. And Manish Bapna, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, told the outlet that “this unequivocal signal from the two largest economies to work together to address the climate crisis is more than welcome; it’s essential.”

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Both China and the U.S. have begun to reap the apparent consequences of climate change. China experienced its most intense heatwave on record this summer, which lasted more than 72 days and caused widespread drought. Heatwaves, droughts, floods, and wildfire all affected large areas of the U.S. in 2022.