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28 September 2020updated 05 Sep 2021 9:59am

The political consequences of China’s net-zero climate aim

A new commitment to carbon neutrality alters governments’ calculus for standing up to the superpower.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Last Tuesday, 22 September Xi Jinping used his (virtual) appearance at the UN General Assembly to make a promising commitment to a goal of carbon neutrality. Not only does China aim to get emissions falling before 2030, a sharpening of its pre-existing goal of “by around 2030”, it now intends to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

The announcement is excellent news. China is by far the world’s biggest carbon emitter. In 2018 it released over 10 gigatonnes of CO2 from fossil fuels, almost twice as much as the US and three times as much as the EU. According to the Carbon Action Tracker, Xi’s statement on Tuesday could reduce total global temperature rises by 0.2-0.3 degrees if China makes good on it. Questions naturally abound about whether, for example, Xi can wean the country off its addiction to coal. But containing climate change without a serious Chinese commitment to net zero would have been virtually impossible. Now, at least, the chance of doing so looks better.

Politically, the announcement could have interesting consequences. The mood in the US, Europe, India and much of east Asia has turned against China recently – over its opacity about the pandemic and its increasingly belligerent and at times bullying diplomatic tone. In a time of strained US-EU relations, Europe’s partial shift towards the sceptical American view of China has provided some new transatlantic common ground. New alliances are also emerging in the Indo-Pacific as those closer to China become more concerned with counter-balancing its power. Talk of a looming “new Cold War” is broadly unhelpful, but the world does increasingly seem to be shifting towards a system of blocs arranged in relation to the poles of Washington and Beijing.

Probably the most convincing argument against hawkishness on China, economic uncoupling and new Beijing-sceptic alliances is that China – as both the world’s biggest polluter and its leading source of much of the technology needed to decarbonise economies – needs to be bound in to the global effort against climate change. Publicly, climate-conscious Western diplomats talk of compartmentalising issues: cooperating closely with China on emissions reductions while freezing it out in other areas over its human rights abuses and military bellicosity. Privately, they concede there is a trade-off: if the wider relationship becomes dysfunctional, climate cooperation will suffer. The more China embraces multilateral emissions-reductions schemes, the more difficult that trade-off becomes.

Xi, of course, knows this. We know that he knows this because of the timing of his announcement, shortly before the US presidential election and as America’s allies consider their options, and because of his pointed reference to the Paris climate agreement: “all countries must take decisive steps to honour this agreement”. The dig was aimed at the US under Donald Trump for pulling out of the agreement and implicitly invited Paris supporters, whether US Democrats or pro-Paris governments in Europe or elsewhere, to see China as a more reliable underwriter of that agreement. The bare reality is that Xi’s commitment to carbon neutrality does alter the calculus somewhat, or indeed significantly, for governments calibrating how robustly and comprehensively to stand up to China.

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As I wrote in a recent column, the battle to control fossil fuels shaped much of the geopolitics of the 20th century. The battle over their decline in the 21st century will be just as eventful.

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