By Rine Mansouri

In a speech at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, made an announcement that took the world by surprise. “We [China] aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”. This small sentence packed in the middle of a big speech set off a chorus of jubilation and was heralded as the most dramatic move in climate politics since the Paris Agreement. The historian Adam Tooze said that Xi may have “redefined the future prospects for humanity”. 

To say that China plays an important role in the climate crisis is an understatement, China is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, by itself producing as much as that produced by the EU, the United States and India combined, although much of it can be thought of as ‘outsourcing’ of European and US emissions — via the purchase of Chinese-manufactured goods, such as mobile phones, rather than domestically-produced alternatives. It could also be argued that the historical responsibility for excessive emissions lies overwhelmingly with the US and the European states, nevertheless, China’s outsized role in the future fight for the climate is unmistakable. According to Climate Action Tracker “If China were to achieve its announced goal of carbon neutrality before 2060, it would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 °C”.

Exiting The Pandemic 

The announcement came at a time when China had seen its international reputation take a major hit, on a whole range of issues from the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak to protests in Hong Kong and the situation in Xinjiang. In the early months of 2020, one could find countless articles reporting with glee on the supposed demise of the Chinese regime, some claiming the downfall of the regime was imminent. Yet despite all the reports of its supposed weakness, China has made an incredible recovery from the coronavirus, and claimed major successes. Being the only major economy not to contract in 2020, life has gone back to normal in several places over the country with infections under control, foreign capital pouring into the country and the signing of a trade deal with the EU.

“The view that state planners are better at running a complex economy has gained currency this year,” writes Lingling Wei in The Wall Street Journal. And with the incredible numbers coming out from China right now it is hard to argue with the conclusion.

Internal and external challenges facing China’s climate push 

The sheer scale of the challenge facing China’s transition is enormous. First of all, there is resistance to the idea from the entrenched heavy industries; coal, steel, cement, heavy machinery and their respective lobby groups. In 2019, China produced six times as much steel as the EU and eight times as much aluminium. Regional and local party bosses and managers of big firms who owe their success to China’s reliance on coal-fired electricity generation will heavily resist the push to decarbonize the economy. 

There is also the broader macro-economic and geopolitical aspect to take into account. China has recently been pushing a “dual circulation” strategy where they are trying to develop and lift domestic demand instead of relying on western demand for their products. Part of the strategy is also the focus on becoming more self-sufficient in key areas such as energy, food and (most importantly from a US perspective) semiconductors. Semiconductors are materials which are hugely important in the fabrication of electronic devices, they’re usually metals but they can also be pure elements such as silicon. They play an incredibly important role in our world today as everything that is computerized or uses radio waves relies on semiconductors. 

The view from China has been that the ongoing trade war with the US is primarily about denying them the opportunity to become world leaders in tech (semiconductors, chips, batteries) and moving up the global value chain.

Although the road to emissions peak and carbon neutrality is looking very bleak and difficult to imagine, there is some good news on the fight for the climate: On the electrification and renewables front the road is much brighter, China is already the world’s leader in solar and wind power, it is the largest market for electric vehicles as well. Another positive development worldwide is that the price of renewables has dropped rapidly in the last decade, the price of solar electricity down 89%, and the price of onshore wind down 70%, making it much easier to install and invest in renewables than in coal or gas plants.

Final Battle for the Climate 

China’s announcement means that, for the first time, the largest emitter is also one of the  most committed to radical measures. The fight against climate change and reducing emissions should not become a race or competition, it has to be a cooperative endeavor between the big superpowers, namely China and the US. In the US, climate policy has taken a very aggressive and militaristic tone recently, with there being a bi-partisan consensus on seeing China as a rival on all fronts, even the climate front. This risks turning what should be a co-operative endeavor into a cold war type of rivalry where taking the lead in renewables is seen as a national security issue. This would be disastrous for everyone, the only solution going forward is genuine collaboration, not only for the world but also for the future prospects of humanity.

By Rine Mansouri

Illustration: Mireia Lundquist

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