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Washington Watch: Biden, Xi pledge renewed cooperation on climate as world pressures two top polluters

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping committed on Monday to a renewed seriousness in joint efforts to curb carbon emissions and other Earth-warming pollution.

A return to the table on this issue by the U.S. and China — the world’s top two contributors to climate change —has been one of the top concerns of the U.N. climate talks currently under way in Egypt.

Biden underscored that the U.S. and China must work together to address transnational challenges including climate change and global macroeconomic stability — including debt relief, health security and global food security — because that is what the international community expects, the White House said in a readout from the bilateral talks in Bali, Indonesia.

Related: Biden says he doesn’t see ‘imminent attempt’ by China to invade Taiwan

Climate talks between China and the U.S. had been stalled for months amid rising tensions between the two countries on trade, Taiwan and security issues. In August, China suspended all cooperation with the U.S., including around climate change, in retaliation for a trip to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Monday’s sit-down with Xi is arguably the highlight of Biden’s seven-day trip to Asia. The two leaders’ nearly three-hour discussion comes at a critical juncture for their countries as they face a worsening global recession and the challenges of addressing climate change as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to affect global energy markets
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On Friday, Biden addressed the U.N.’s annual climate summit, the Conference of the Parties or COP27, now in its second and final week. In what was seen as a rebuff to other leaders, Xi did not attend, instead sending top Chinese climate and energy officials.

Read: Biden tightens methane emissions rule, but still wants more U.S. oil for now

“This unequivocal signal from the two largest economies to work together to address the climate crisis is more than welcome, it’s essential,” said Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement from the sidelines of the COP27.

“The world needs every country at the table, striving to deliver on solutions that curtail the use of fossil fuels
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and sharply accelerate investment in clean energy
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as well as take steps to reform international financing institutions so they pump more resources into climate action and to address crushing debt in developing countries impeding their move to clean economies,” Bapna said.

In his opening remarks at the talks with Xi, Biden said, “The world expects, I believe, China and the United States to play key roles in addressing global challenges, from climate changes to food insecurity, and … for us to be able to work together.”

Biden added, addressing Xi: “The United States stands ready to do just that — work with you — if that’s what you desire.”

For the first time in formal talks at a COP, countries that have been devastated by increasingly severe and frequent natural disasters are urging the West to pay damages for exploiting their land and resources, both historically and in the present day. The U.S. is part of a push to reclassify China as a developed rather than a developing nation so that it, too, will be on the hook for paying restitution to countries that suffer environmental degradation as they feed demand for minerals and fossil fuels from richer nations.

China has blamed the United States for disrupting climate-change negotiations between the two countries but said that communications never ceased entirely. Beijing’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, told reporters at the U.N. climate conference in Egypt a few days ago that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan had “invaded China’s sovereignty and hurt Chinese people’s feelings.”

“That’s why China decided to suspend the formal climate talks with U.S.,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “The responsibility lies totally with the U.S. side.”

Xie urged the United States to “clear the barriers” to holding formal talks again. Xie and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, had continued informal exchanges before and during the COP27 summit, Xie said.

John Podesta, Biden’s senior adviser on clean energy innovation, said Beijing was harming itself and the rest of the world by not formally engaging with the U.S.

Deals between the world’s two biggest greenhouse-gas emitters have been crucial in the past to securing broader international agreements such as the 2015 Paris climate accord, which sets a global target limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (equivalent to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a level seen key to preventing loss of life as well as economic effects of climate change.

U.S. emissions had been steadily dropping before a slight rebound in recent months with transportation increasing after the worst of the COVID-19 economic shutdown, according to a Global Carbon Project report. The same release showed that Chinese emissions had been rising until this year.

“The window to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees — and avoid the worst damage from climate change — is closing fast. We urge the world’s two major economies to act with speed and conviction to meet the challenge of the moment,” said the NRDC’s Bapna.

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