China joins EU climate efforts

While Europe is currently facing a fast worsening ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus pandemic, it does not lose out of sight the climate crisis that threatens our planet. The damage it is already causing in Africa and the storms Alex and Barbara that have hit Europe reminded member States of the danger we face. The European Green Deal is a central focus of the EU Commission’s mandate. Bruxelles already decided to aim for climate neutrality in 2050 and the Commission is currently discussing how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The Next Generation EU recovery plan has also been built around this priority. However, the European Union has a limited responsibility in that area, EU countries are in fact responsible for only 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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Since the Rio Summit in 1992, one of the main difficulties in reaching global treaties has been around the question which role developing countries, in particular China, should play. Originally, developing countries consideredthat the main responsibility for climate change lay with the developed countries and that therefore they should make the necessary efforts. However, this exclusion of developing nations also led the United States to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.Economic developments and global changes over the past 30 years have profoundly improved the situation. Given China’s technological prowess (space exploration, cutting-edge military technology, AI), its continued self-definition as a ‘developing country’ looks more and more anachronistic and self-serving: China is an international player ready to step up on its responsibilities. However, by 2014, China agreed to make commitments on the limitation of its greenhouse gas emissions, paving the way for the Paris Agreement in 2015.

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While the Paris Agreement was a true breakthrough, the scientists are clear that, for the time being the commitments made by the different countries under that agreement are still insufficient to achieve the goal of keeping global temperature rise to below 2°C by the end of the century. Given that China accounts now for 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions (while the US emits 14%, and the EU-27 and India with 7% each), its reduction efforts are absolutely critical. In addition to that, its economy is expected to continue growing and it plays a leadership role vis-à-vis emerging and developing economies on their climate stance.

During his speech to the UN General Assembly on 22 September 2020, the Chinese President Xi Jinping announced two elements in the fight against climate change: ‘We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060’. The ‘peaking before 2030’ goal was anticipated but not the carbon neutrality before 2060: the announcement was made without prior trailing. Under current policies, the world would be about 2.7 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100 (we are now at 1.1°C) according to climate modellers. If China were to achieve its new goal, it would lop off 0.3 degrees off that trajectory. EU high representative Josep Borrell described this decision as a major step.

“This year, parties to the Paris Agreement are expected to issue mid-century targets. By doing this announcement, China wants to position itself vis a vis the United States as a defender of multilateralism and follower of global rules”. A note of the European Union affirms.

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“During the last months, the EU urged China to step up its climate ambition and we are happy to hear the announcement going in this direction.” Borrell added, pointing out that what matters is delivering results and China has so far not detailed how it will achieve its 2060 target. On 14 September in the latest VTC between the EU and Chinese Leadership, it was agreed to set up a climate and environment dialogue to go further in this field. This dialogue could focus on the pathways to get to net-zero emissions. Prominent topics should be the phasing out of coal, the role of carbon pricing, the rollout of hydrogen. In addition, the dialogue could prepare the ground for global action on methane emissions.

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