For those invested in the fight against climate change, the timing of this week’s meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jingping is fortuitous.
The rare face-to-face, scheduled to happen Wednesday on the alongside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, comes as signs of a renewed desire between the two economic giants to work together to rein in fossil fuel use appear to be growing — a significant shift and a possible topic on which the countries can agree.
On Thursday, John Kerry, Biden’s special climate envoy, wrote on X that the nations had “comprehensive and constructive discussions” and “reached common ground on a number of issues.” His update comes less than a month ahead of COP28, the United Nations conference at which countries are expected to agree to new pledges to fight climate change and its consequences.
That’s a crucial signal for the world, much of which takes its climate cues from the U.S and China.
“I think both presidents see the climate and clean energy space as perhaps one of the bright spots in the relationship,” said Alden Meyer, senior associate at E3G, a climate think tank that focuses on global policy. “Both in terms of what the countries are doing domestically and how they can help smooth out some of the roadblocks to successful outcomes in the climate negotiations process.”
For Kerry, it’s a reversal from a more sour tone just six months ago when he said climate negotiations had struggled amid growing geopolitical tensions. A 2021 agreement between the U.S. and China to combat climate change has since been overshadowed by China’s growing fossil fuel production, most notably with coal.
But each country has shown signs of willingness to clean up their energy use. China recently announced its long-awaited methane emissions agreement, and the sweeping policies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. climate law that passed last year, help both nations align on decarbonizing sectors while bringing down emissions.
Fan Dai, director of the California-China Climate Institute, a partnership between the University of California, Berkeley, and Tsinghua University, said cooperation would be natural since both countries want to move away from fossil fuels and bolster their economies but have security implications to consider.
“I think that’s another issue that really requires the two countries to work together with each other and with the rest of the world,” she said.
The negotiations come as the climate community has warned that the world is barreling toward the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold at which point the effects of human-caused global warming cannot be reversed. Both countries are experiencing the harsh effects of climate change in the form of flooding and heat waves that would not be possible without climate change.
It’s not clear what the agenda for the Biden-Xi meeting will be, though it will come shortly after Xi’s meeting with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who visited China last month to talk climate cooperation. Meyer said that Kerry’s talks and the presidents’ meeting bode well for the upcoming U.N. conference.
“Assuming that goes well, I think the hope is that they could work out an updated joint statement by the time COP28 rolls around in Dubai in about three weeks,” he said.
COP28 will serve as a crucial waypoint for the world’s climate mitigation efforts. The E.U. has already said it will make a substantial financial contribution to a fund meant to address destruction by climate change, and Reuters reported that more than 60 countries have expressed support for an agreement to triple renewable energy this decade.
Dai noted that the optics of climate cooperation could also give the topic a boost as the rivals square off in other arenas.
“In the climate space, I think that cooperating with the U.S. does not mean President Xi has to bend his knees to the U.S. and to Biden. It’s more taking a long-term view, and it’s more of how a leader should think,” she said. “I think the same applies to working with China on climate does not mean Biden is weakening his position on China. I think the opposite actually, that it means it’s a very wise foreign policy movement.”