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Opinion: China is going carbon neutral, and the USA needs to take note no matter who it elects

Luke O Callaghan White says China’s leader was being strategic when he stunned the international community recently by declaring ambitious climate action plans.

Luke O Callaghan White

WE ARE JUST a week away from polling day in one of the most divisive US Presidential elections in history, the result of which will have ramifications far beyond the borders of the United States and which will raise the stakes in terms of climate multilateralism. 

While urgent issues ranging from Covid-19, the economy, police violence and nominations to the Supreme Court have dominated the campaign, another pressing issue has barely featured in the debate: climate change.

President Trump and Joe Biden did touch on it in last week’s debate, albeit briefly. Despite the lack of attention it has received, the issue is one that 48% of US voters have stated is “very important” to them.  

Trump’s track record on climate change is clear. He has called climate change ‘a hoax’ and within days of taking office, he took the US out of the Paris Agreement.

During his term in office, he has repealed many of the clean energy regulations put in place by the Obama Administration, while aggressively financing coal and fossil energy projects at a time when EU Member-States are phasing-out coal entirely.

These actions have served to profoundly undermine US global leadership in climate and energy matters, creating a void that has set the scene for China to seize the global initiative.  

A carbon-neutral China by 2060?

Just minutes after President Trump addressed the September’s UN General Assembly in New York, Chinese President, Xi Jinping stunned the world when he took the virtual stage to announce that China will aim to become carbon neutral by 2060.

China is looking to reach its peak carbon emissions by 2030 and then undergo a profound transformation of its entire energy system to become a net-zero emitter of carbon 30 years later.

Such a transformation would make a significant contribution to the effort to keep global temperatures in line with the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Models forecast that a carbon-neutral China could avoid 0.2oC – 0.3oC of global warming

Today, China is an energy superpower. It is the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide – responsible for around 28% of global emissions. Fossil fuels still account for about 85% of China’s energy mix, and it continues to burn 25% of the world’s coal. 

Can China meet the carbon neutrality target it has set? To reach net-zero emissions by 2060 will require an energy transformation at an unprecedented scale and speed.

However, it is worth remembering that China has undergone transformational change in short periods of time before. In the 40 years between 1978 and 2018, China doubled its economic output, on average, every eight years and this economic growth has raised an estimated 800 million people out of poverty.

While China accounts for more than one-quarter of the world’s carbon emissions, it is also the world’s largest green energy market, accounting for more than 45% of the global investment in renewable energy and two-thirds of the world’s solar-production capacity.  It is also the largest producer of wind turbines.

The geopolitics of climate action

These developments in China’s energy and climate agenda pose a serious challenge to American influence in the world order. The geopolitical threat posed by China has been a focal point during the ongoing US presidential campaign, yet little-if-any attention has been placed on the role that climate action plays in this great power rivalry.   

A major study from the International Renewable Energy Agency has forecast that countries which continue to rely heavily on fossil fuel exports and do not adapt to the energy transition will face risks and lose geopolitical influence.

President Xi saw an opening for international climate leadership and took it. Taking a prominent role in international climate action efforts is likely to deliver geopolitical and reputational benefits to China at a time when it faces many pressing challenges.

Those challenges include a trade war with the US, international sanctions in response to its mass internment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, and widespread backlash to the introduction of a robust state security law in Hong Kong. 

China’s geopolitical standing in the world will continue to grow as it continues to invest in renewable technologies and build up its clean energy capacities. It is forecasted that China’s GDP will rise by up to 5% during the next decade owing to its transition to carbon neutrality. And, it can be expected that, because of the size of China’s economy, international energy markets will also shift towards greener solutions.

The US needs to follow, and fast

Conversely, if the US does not step-up its climate ambitions, it will continue to cede power and international influence to China. 

The timing of President Xi’s announcement at the UN General Assembly was deliberate and strategic. By declaring his country’s long-term climate agenda before the US presidential election, the Chinese leader has strengthened his country’s climate position regardless of the outcome of the race. 

If President Trump is re-elected, climate multilateralism will continue to suffer. China’s net-zero target is an opportunity for it to take advantage and claim to be a constructive actor on the international stage. It will also give the nation a pivotal role in the upcoming UN climate discussions on climate change. 

If Biden wins, China’s leaders can expect that by outlining plans for climate-neutrality in advance of the US election, it will have appeased the new Administration and offset any potential U.S. pressure and demands on climate action. 

The US is now the only major polluting country which has yet to set a target to end its contribution to the climate crisis. The stakes could not be higher.

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The results of the upcoming US Presidential election might well determine which of the world’s energy superpowers will be the world’s first climate action superpower. 

Luke O Callaghan White is a climate and energy researcher with the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA. Read his full report on China here.

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