What the Sunnylands Statement Means for U.S.-China Climate Cooperation

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Ilaria Mazzocco on her Critical Questions with Deborah Seligsohn, “What the Sunnylands Statement Means for U.S.-China Climate Cooperation.”

Audio file

While general expectations for the Biden-Xi summit held on Wednesday, November 15 in San Francisco were set very low, the new U.S.-China “Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis” delivers some welcome progress on climate change. The two countries’ special envoys on climate change, former secretary of state John Kerry and former climate minister Xie Zhenhua, have been negotiating for two years to reach this agreement, which follows up on their 2021 joint declaration at the Glasgow Climate Summit. Implementation of the previous agreement has languished over the larger geopolitical rifts between the two countries. This statement, coming in connection with a leaders’ summit, carries the imprimatur of leadership support and suggests a return to a previous practice of seeing climate cooperation as a useful bright spot even when other issues are challenging.

Q1: What’s in the declaration?

A1: The statement has two key aspects. The first is agreement on a working group to address areas of the climate crisis that can benefit from U.S.-China cooperation. The second is a series of commitments to furthering the international process, including enhancing the two countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Back in 2021, the two countries agreed to the formation of a working group, but progress stalled over disagreements in part connected to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit that year to Taiwan. The statement not only commits to “operationalize” the Working Group, but also states that “the two countries will immediately initiate [a] technical working group” on methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases, an area where there are a number of difficult technical challenges to be addressed. The two countries also agree to restart the U.S.-China Energy Efficiency Forum, to advance “5 large-scale cooperative CCUS [carbon capture use and storage] projects each by 2030,” and to engage on a number of other pragmatic areas of cooperation. The statement endorses subnational cooperation, an area that has been fruitful, especially between California and China.

The statement also addresses the upcoming 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai. It contains a planned activity—a jointly hosted summit on methane and non-CO2 gases—and commitments to negotiating positions that are important to both countries. Most critically, this includes a commitment to economy-wide targets on all greenhouse gases by 2035, something China had not committed to previously and that the United States has been asking for, and from the U.S. side, a recognition of the expectation that developed countries will contribute $100 billion goal in climate finance to developing countries. The latter has been a particularly fraught political topic in the United States and at previous COP meetings.

Q2: Why meet on climate now?

A2: The United States and China have a history of making new agreements prior to the COP, dating back to both countries’ issuance of new targets prior to COP11 in Copenhagen in 2009. More productively, the two countries issued two joint statements in 2014 and 2015 that are widely considered to have eased the way to the Paris Agreement in 2015. The combination of the Biden-Xi summit with the next COP opening in two weeks makes this timing particularly fortuitous. With the two largest emitters of climate gases going into COP with some shared perspectives and greater trust, the overall meeting’s prospects of success have been improved.

Climate action has also been a traditional area of cooperation for the two countries, often seen as a bright spot in what has become an increasingly fraught relationship. The lack of progress on climate cooperation in recent years suggested that relations had deteriorated to the point of leaving little space for dialogue even in areas where the two countries have mutual interests. An agreement with concrete action areas may signal a more general willingness to stabilize relations.

Q3: Does bilateral climate cooperation matter?

A3: Both the United States and China have almost all the tools they need to address climate change, and most critical steps involve domestic action. Both countries now have effective climate policies and are rapidly expanding the use of renewable energy, improving energy efficiency, and electrifying their industry, home, and transportation systems. But both need to move more quickly. This joint statement could help spur action by advancing cooperation on the still difficult tasks that remain—addressing methane and other non-CO2 gases, storing excess CO2, whether from specific sources or ultimately capturing it from the air itself, and helping communities shift away from the fossil fuel economy. This agreement also sets a clear target for making specific numeric goals for these problems that are more difficult to address.

Q4: Will it advance the COP negotiations?

A4: This statement will undoubtedly improve the atmosphere at the upcoming COP, and the joint summit on methane and non-CO2 gases might spur some action on controlling these emissions around the world. However, this is unlikely to be a major COP in terms of new outcomes. The structure of the Paris Agreement calls for a global stocktake every 5 years, followed by review and enhancement of country commitments (called nationally determined contributions, or NDCs). The stocktake is due this year, but new NDCs are not expected until 2025. So although the joint statement commits both countries to work together to ensure that the stocktake covers a wide range of issues of both mitigation and adaptation and reflects more ambition, it is unlikely to lead to dramatic changes to the NDCs this year. Further announcements of targets on methane reduction from China are not likely given that it just released its first Methane Action Plan earlier in November.

Q5: What more can the two governments do?

A5: One of the issues that has arisen in recent years is the concept of over-shooting. The concern is that while all of this progress in reducing the use of fossil fuels and controlling some non-CO2 gases will ultimately pay off, it is quite possible that temperatures will rise quickly over the next couple of decades, exceeding the hoped for limit of 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels or even the 2 degrees Celsius of warming that is treated in recent COP and bilateral statements as the absolute outside level to be permitted. With greater controls over time, including carbon neutrality goals for most countries by 2050 or 2060 at the latest, temperatures might then come down again, but an enormous amount of damage, from ice cap melt to coral and other ecological destruction, would already have occurred. These outcomes could have widespread social implications because of their impact on agriculture, access to fresh water, rising sea levels, among other things and calls for enhanced efforts to ensure communities around the world are ready to adapt to a less stable climate. This is also why the focus on methane and other non-CO2 gases is so urgent, because while some, like methane, may not last as long in the atmosphere, in the short term they cause even greater warming than CO2. Thus, reducing them could help address the risk of a rapid rise in temperatures.

But control of non-CO2 gases is not the only possible way to address this risk, and there are other more controversial options. These fall under the category of geoengineering. Some, like carbon capture and storage underground, have gained considerable support and are not as controversial as they were 20 years ago. But others, including injecting CO2 in the deep sea, and putting various types of devices into space, are untested and thus carry more potential risks. Governments should also account for the possibility that a wealthy individual, a company, or an individual state could try to address climate change in this way, absent any global consensus or consideration of the risks. Overshooting could incentivize further rogue actors to take this kind of action to address the increased impact of climate change. Addressing this risk will require robust global governance. Since this is an area where both governments have an incentive to maintain governmental control, it could be addressed in a future working group.

Deborah Seligsohn is assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and senior associate (non-resident) in the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ilaria Mazzocco is a senior fellow with the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at CSIS.

Deborah Seligsohn
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics
Senior Fellow, Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics