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Despite Strained Relations, U.S. And China Agree To Combat Climate Change Together

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. and China relationship is still tense, but could tackling climate change offer a chance for both countries to work together? That's what special climate envoys from the U.S. and China have proposed after meeting in Shanghai. In a joint statement this weekend, China and the U.S. say they are committed to stopping global warming together.

With us now, NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng to talk about how that could happen. Emily, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, so let's start with this meeting in Shanghai. Who was there, and what was the outcome?

FENG: So U.S. climate envoy John Kerry was there, and he was meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. And Xie is a very experienced climate negotiator. He's been at many a climate summit for China. And this was a really last-minute meeting. It was scheduled right before President Biden is planning on holding his online climate summit for Earth Day this coming week.

The U.S. was really hoping that this meeting would get China to commit to carbon emissions promises and also to get Chinese leader Xi Jinping to attend Biden's online summit. It is not clear yet whether Xi will attend the summit, though it seems likely he will. The U.S. and China did agree, though, to work together to stop the world from warming more than two degrees Celsius, so in other words, to work together to enforce the Paris agreement, which China is a part of and the U.S. just rejoined. But they left the specifics of how to get there pretty vague.

MARTIN: Is the fact that the envoys met a good sign? I mean, the U.S. and China have had a strained relationship, to say the least, since the prior administration. Sanctions from both sides still remain on American and Chinese officials and companies, to my understanding. And last month, as I recall, the two countries met in Anchorage, Alaska, and they walked away with no agreement. So what's different here?

FENG: Well, in this case, both China and the U.S. released a bilingual joint statement right after the meetings finished. That's a pretty rare show of good faith and a strong sign of agreement. And climate itself is just an obvious and necessary issue for both countries to get a handle on. The U.S. says it wants to cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions in half by 2030. China says it wants to be completely carbon-neutral by 2060.

And so both countries are going to need investments in green technologies like energy storage, electric vehicles, and more research and development into the kinds of infrastructure and technological changes we need to get there to reduce carbon emissions. So they've pledged together in this joint statement to work together on those issues. And both countries say they're going to have more specific strategies in place for how to reduce carbon emissions outlined before they meet in November for the United Nations climate change summit.

MARTIN: So carbon-neutral before 2060 - I mean, I don't know. That sounds like an ambitious target. Is China taking some steps to get there?

FENG: To be honest, not yet. So the real question after the Shanghai meeting is how China and the U.S. will meet these targets and when they're going to commit to make the changes needed. For China, the elephant in the room is coal because their power and heating sector is still heavily reliant on coal. China is still building more coal-fired plants around the world. And China's latest economic plan does not reduce coal use more than it has in years before. So China needs to make serious changes, but it hasn't planned on making those in the short term.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "CITRUSSS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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