There are signs that political differences may give way to practical US-China cooperation to meet emissions targets
Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Chinese President Xi Jinping provided a written statement to the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow yesterday. In this article we examine its contents and provide insights into the Chinese position.
Certain media outlets have suggested that Xi’s non-appearance at COP26 is due to political in-fighting in Beijing, in fact Xi hasn’t travelled overseas since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out and has not attended any international events in person for the past 18 months. The Chinese have however sent a large delegation of experts to Glasgow, and are very well represented to discuss matters during the two week long discussions. Xi’s statement is as follows.
“Honorable Prime Minister Boris Johnson,
It gives me great pleasure to attend the World Leaders Summit and discuss ways to address the climate challenge. As we speak, the adverse impacts of climate change have become increasingly evident, presenting a growing urgency for global action. How to respond to climate change and revive the world economy are challenges of our times that we must meet.
First, we need to uphold multilateral consensus. When it comes to global challenges such as climate change, multilateralism is the right prescription. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Paris Agreement provide the fundamental legal basis for international cooperation on climate. Parties need to build on existing consensus, increase mutual trust, step up cooperation and work together to deliver a successful COP26 in Glasgow.”
CDE: These apparently wise words contain a huge amount of political symbolism and especially in relation to US politics. The phrase ‘multilateral consensus’ refers to CPC policy of building a global ‘Community of common destiny for mankind’ and has been introduced as a core pillar of China’s foreign policy. It was adopted into the Chinese constitution in 2018. The issue Washington has with this is two-fold: it places China as a global leader on a level with the United States, and it seeks to diminish the US as the world’s sole superpower, a position it does not wish to give up. Consequently, when China talks of ‘cooperation’, Washington’s view of that is ‘competition’. These distinctions may be valid in terms of trade and economic matters; however, they are far from useful when dealing with truly global issues such as climate change. Washington’s perspective on this and what it implies for the US will be keenly debated across the American business, financial, and political spectrum. At the very heart of this is the old debate of socialism vs. capitalism. Extending that divide into the global arena does not suit the US agenda. How much Washington is prepared to ‘cooperate’ is the salient point in these remarks.
Xi: “Second, we need to focus on concrete actions. Visions will come true only when we act on them. Parties need to honor their commitments, set realistic targets and visions, and do their best according to national conditions to deliver their climate action measures. Developed countries should not only do more themselves but should also provide support to help developing countries do better.”
CDE: Climate change impacts China perhaps more than any other nation with the possible exception of India. China has 17.8% of the global population. As a one-party state, the CPC needs to keep them safe and secure, with more social pressures in doing so than in a democracy. Xi’s calls for action and for other countries to both be realistic and deliver are of direct relevance to China. Xi’s call for developing countries to do more is again a socialist viewpoint that may not fit within capitalist systems more given to profit than charity. In political terms, this is a reference to the exploitative nature of unfettered capitalism and, a call to uphold socialist values. It remains to be seen how far the United States and the Western economies are prepared to go to match discussed action over climate change with socialism. The paradox remains that the best way to introduce remedial measures by Western economies would be to profit from them. The conundrum for the West is how to deliver climate change action in a capitalist manner that will generate wealth.
Xi: “Third, we need to accelerate the green transition. It is important to harness innovations in science and technology to transform and upgrade our energy and resources sectors as well as the industrial structure and consumption pattern, promote a greener economy and society, and explore a new pathway forward that coordinates development with conservation.”
CDE: This is partially a reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, and the development of the Global Energy Partnership to which 30 countries have currently signed up too. This project seeks to concentrate on energy infrastructure development financing and construction among members. Critics in Washington have inevitably criticized it as being against its own interests (members include heavily US sanctioned countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela) and suggested it will lead member countries to debt and energy security issues with China.
Xi: “Guided by the vision of a community of life for man and Nature, China will continue to prioritize ecological conservation and pursue a green and low-carbon path to development. We will foster a green, low-carbon and circular economic system at a faster pace, press ahead with industrial structure adjustment, and rein in the irrational development of energy-intensive and high-emissions projects. We will speed up the transition to green and low-carbon energy, vigorously develop renewable energy, and plan and build large wind and photovoltaic power stations. Recently, China released two directives: Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality in Full and Faithful Implementation of the New Development Philosophy, and the Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030. Specific implementation plans for key areas such as energy, industry, construction, and transport, and for key sectors such as coal, electricity, iron and steel, and cement will be rolled out, coupled with supporting measures in terms of science and technology, carbon sink, fiscal and taxation, and financial incentives. Taken together, these measures will form a “1+N” policy framework for delivering carbon peak and carbon neutrality, with clearly defined timetable, road map and blueprint.
Ancient Chinese believe that “successful governance relies on solid action.” I hope all parties will take stronger actions to jointly tackle the climate challenge and protect the planet, the shared home for us all.
CDE: Western media have already criticized Xi’s speech for containing no new climate pledges. This is both inaccurate and unfair. Xi mentioned both the Working Guidance For Carbon Dioxide Peaking And Carbon Neutrality and the Action Plan For Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030 as Chinese policies. These were released by the Chinese National Reform & Development Commission (NDRC) just last week.
These two plans are ambitious, seeking to peak Chinese emissions before 2030 (ie within the next eight years), and calling for its share of non-fossil fuel consumption to reach 25% while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 65% of 2005 levels. Carbon neutrality should be achieved by 2060. The plan outlines key tasks to achieve a carbon peak before 2030, including promoting green and low-carbon transportation, advancing a circular economy, and supporting technological innovation. It also calls for China to develop a unified and standardized carbon emissions statistical accounting system, improve laws, regulations, and standards, optimize economic policies, and establish sound market mechanisms as part of its efforts to enhance policy support.
This can be compared with the United States’ commitments to climate change, which President Biden stated yesterday would be to reduce carbon emissions by 50%-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, ahead of China’s plans but with the benefit of cleaner technology, although unlike China’s commitments, the US hasn’t outlined how it intends to achieve them. Little noticed meanwhile has been Honeywell’s recent announcement of a JV with China’s Baowu Steel Group, the world’s largest, to produce hydrogen energy in an effort to help reduce carbon emissions in the steel sector. That indicates that US technology and companies are already working with China to reduce emissions and will be the subject of an upcoming report on China Briefing shortly.
The dismissal of China’s efforts in the media is somewhat misplaced. China’s carbon peak and neutrality goals are in line with the requirements of the Paris Agreement. It is also hampered somewhat by its demographics, as China is still in an industrialization and urbanization stage and faces an enormous task of developing its economy and improving people’s livelihoods, meaning energy consumption will continue to grow. Xi meanwhile has previously mentioned at last month’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity that in order to achieve its carbon peak and neutrality targets, China will release implementation plans for peaking carbon dioxide emissions in key areas and sectors as well as a series of supporting measures and will put in place a 1+N policy framework for carbon peak and carbon neutrality. Much of these measures were rolled out as part of the Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Emissions discussed above – China is following through with its statements.
Xi also stated at that event that China will continue to readjust its industrial structure and energy mix, vigorously develop renewable energy, and make faster progress in planning and developing large wind power and photovoltaic bases in sandy areas, rocky areas and deserts, while ‘vigorously’ develop renewable energy, mentioning that the country has begun constructing 100-million kw wind and photovoltaic power projects in the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts.
China therefore appears to be onboard with action for climate change. Its policies of enacting its stated goals have been well defined. What can be hoped for and appears rather more encouraging behind the scenes is additional US-China cooperation as shown in the recent Honeywell JV, and less politicking. Climate change requires political adaption, and within this sphere, it would be best for the China Hawks to be restrained and allow, at least for these initiatives, exactly what China has called for: cooperation.
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