Europe and China take the climate reins

While it might be tempting to dismiss the recent commitments by China and the European Union to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions within the next few decades, doing so would be a mistake.

installing solar panels in Germany
Workers install solar panels in Bavaria, Germany. Image: Mark Mühlhaus/Windwärts Energie , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the space of just a week during this year’s United Nations General Assembly, representatives of the world’s largest single market and the world’s second-largest economy each laid their climate cards on the table.

One need not be a national-intelligence analyst to parse the results: the European Union and China have both committed to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, thus creating common ground for much deeper cooperation.

To be sure, these commitments will need to be backed by concrete policies. But even words carry power. Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is known for hyperbole or making major declarations without prior deliberation. If they set a concrete target, that means they have some sense of how to reach it.

Regardless of how quickly the US can return to the international community, the global trajectory is clear. Net-zero is the destination, and all leaders would do well to chart their course accordingly.

Moreover, it is not as though it will be easy for the EU’s 27 member states to agree on a more ambitious 2030 target that is in line with its commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. European leaders are well aware of the many vested interests standing ready to oppose the new goal.

Nor is it easy for China’s leadership to announce that it will hit peak emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Reorienting an economy as large as China’s is no small task. Yet both powers recognise that the reality of climate change makes an economic transition inevitable, and that whoever moves first will have a major competitive advantage for decades to come.

Overhauling an economy at the speed needed to reduce national emissions in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement has never been done, and will require strong distributed leadership of a kind that is already coming into view.

Countries, regions, cities, and major business and financial actors have all started to set net-zero targets of their own. Five years after the Paris accord was signed, these commitments indicate that a critical mass is building. Chinese and European leaders recognise that this is the moment to press ahead with concrete, detailed plans of action.

There is no “one size fits all” plan. Some plans are about technology changes, but many other transitions will require the ownership of citizens, a stronger emphasis on restoring nature, or a systemic approach. We can all learn from each other’s experiences along the way.

For its part, China will need to map out a long-term strategy with specific milestones for reaching its 2060 goal.

Having such a plan in place is necessary to ensure that short-term decision-making – from the next five-year plan to its Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris agreement – is consistent with China’s longer-term development trajectories. Otherwise, it is all too easy to continue kicking the same can down the road indefinitely.

For China, key benchmarks include reaching peak CO2 emissions by 2025, setting more ambitious carbon intensity (70-75 per cent reduction), non-fossil fuel targets, and setting targets for the reduction of domestic coal consumption.

Whether China can end the construction and financing of new coal facilities – both at home and abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative – will be a crucial test.

Fortunately, aside from coal’s destructive impact on the climate, it is no longer even economically viable. In 2019 alone, coal-power generation fell by 24 per cent in the EU and by 16 per cent in the United States, bringing it down to half the 2007 level.

In China itself, nearly 60 per cent of the country’s enormous coal capacity is running at a loss, giving the government every reason to extend its global lead in solar and wind power, and to use its international reach to boost renewables beyond its borders.

Like China, the EU also will need to demonstrate how it can meet its long-term targets. The European Commission has determined that a 55 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 – at least – will be necessary to reach its climate-neutrality target. It now must win the support of all 27 member states.

The EU Parliament has asked for a 60 per cent target. The sooner a deal is reached, the better the EU’s chance to leapfrog ahead.

With the same goal in mind, China and the EU will have ample opportunity to deepen their cooperation. Both are confronting similar challenges when it comes to recovering from the Covid-19 crisis, elevating the role of sustainable finance, managing debt relief, and ensuring a just transition for workers in carbon-intensive and other soon-to-be impacted sectors.

Cooperation need not be limited to the national level. Partnerships between cities, regions, provinces, and industries have already shown great promise.

If China and the EU do hit their next major benchmarks, the global implications will be broad and deep. China, the “factory of the world,” was the single largest exporter and the third-largest importer in 2018.

By setting cleaner standards and focusing an all-of-society effort on achieving its net-zero target, it can effect significant change on supply chains spanning Brazil, Australia, and Indonesia, as well as entire regions from Africa to the Middle East. Simply put, the world’s governments will need to reevaluate their long-term economic plans through a green lens.

Coming on the tail of talks with the EU, China’s announcement also reminds us of the vital role that diplomacy has to play. Even though the US has spent the last four years undermining multilateral institutions, international cooperation is still possible, and continues to offer profound benefits for those who engage in it.

Regardless of how quickly the US can return to the international community, the global trajectory is clear. Net-zero is the destination, and all leaders would do well to chart their course accordingly.

Laurence Tubiana, a former French ambassador to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a professor at Sciences Po, Paris.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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