By Blanca Trepat*
Last September 2020, President Xi Jinping announced China’s intention to become carbon neutral by 2060. This pledge could be a tipping point in the fight against climate change at a global level since it will contribute considerably to the already existing European Union (EU)’s efforts in the field of climate diplomacy.
The European Commission announced in the European Green Deal the intention to make Europe a carbon-neutral continent by 2050. Among the Commission’s climate initiatives that will contribute to this, it is worth noting the 2030 Climate Target Plan to further decrease net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% by 2030.
At this point, the 2030 climate target final outcome is being discussed among the three EU institutions, where the European Parliament expressed its intention to support a 60% reduction target for GHG emissions based on 1990 levels and the EU heads of state composing the Council agreed to a 55% reduction target.
Despite the big achievement from the Council to come to this agreement, many environmental NGOs point out that 55% emissions reduction goal will not be sufficient to achieve carbon neutrality in the European Union by 2050. For that, global emissions need to fall by 7.6% annually until 2030 to reach the 1.5oC target enshrined in the Paris Agreement, thus requiring 65% emissions cut in Europe by 2030.
The vote of the 2030 EU climate target was delayed from October to December 2020 due to Poland’s and Hungary’s request to analyse the situation and the impact on member states. The strong dependence of these countries on coal production is one of the main reasons they were among the reluctant EU member states to support higher GHG emission reductions. It is still worth underlining the fast pace at which climate legislation is being developed in the EU since the presentation of the European Green Deal in December 2019.
China’s carbon neutrality announcement came in fact as a surprise to the UN general assembly, where its President shared the intention to adopt further measures to increase their contribution to reduce global carbon emissions. This is the first time that China speaks of cutting emissions to net zero and puts pressure on other large global economies such as India, where the idea of carbon neutrality is still not developed or the US, where the recently elected President Biden already shared its intention to re-join the Paris Agreement. Hence, this should definitely be considered a historic moment amidst the pandemic crisis since China’s contribution to the production of GHG global emissions account for 28,5%.
The strong commitment from China in climate diplomacy can be reflected in different actions that have been adopted in the last decade. For instance, their policies and measures are being updated every year based on their 2007 elaborated national plan and they reduced carbon intensity a 48% in 2019 in comparison with 2005 levels. Also, clean energy accounts now for 23% of the totally energy consumed in China despite their historically strong reliance on coal. In addition to this, they are the biggest producers of renewals’ energy technology.
It is in Brussels and Beijing interest to work together and lead by example in this climate neutrality race. In fact, both leaders have already been working together in the last decade on energy, environmental governance and emissions trading scheme matters. Since 2005 there is the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change, which provides a high-level framework for cooperation and dialogue. This commitment has been reinforced lately under the EU-China Summit in 2018 where both sides reaffirmed their will to implement the Paris Agreement and intensify their cooperation on climate change and clean energy.
Remarkably, this carbon neutrality race puts an eye on scientific and technological innovation. Chinese development of green energy has come thanks to European technology and guidance. However, tables have now turned since China has become the biggest country for the production of the photovoltaic panels and has replaced Germany in the top ranking. Both EU and China should not forget that the just transition should be fair and leave no one behind. In this regard, China could learn from Europe and cooperate in the scientific area and support third countries in Africa, where Beijing has been gaining a strong political influence in the recent years.
As expressed by some EU officials, the Chinese climate target by 2060 is welcome even though a carbon neutrality target by 2050 would be rather encouraged for the Asian country in order to make it possible to achieve the goals set in the Paris Agreement. Fortunately, the COVID pandemic has made available recovery funds, which provide the perfect opportunity to align policies with the economy to reach the carbon target. In the EU this is being implemented under the so called NextGenerationEU while China is focusing on building new and better infrastructure adapted to new times.
China’s move will definitely shape world progress in climate diplomacy as the biggest polluter in the world; notwithstanding the fact that climate change requires a multilateral reaction since it will not be tackled by a continent alone. The coalition between China and the EU will be key in putting pressure to other big polluters in Asia and the Americas and should be seen as a cornerstone to big changes in energy sources. Nevertheless, action should adopt a rather fast pace if we really want to reach carbon neutrality in the next decades while a parallel restructuring in global economy and technology will be strongly needed.
Carbon-neutrality: How can the EU and China co-operate to lead global climate change effort?, January 2021: https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/video/carbon-neutrality-how-can-the-eu-and-china-co-operate-to-lead-global-climate-change-efforts/
Towards carbon neutrality – one year in, December 2020: https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/video/towards-carbon-neutrality-one-year-in/
Climate superpowers: How the EU and China can compete and cooperate for a green future, December 2020: https://ecfr.eu/publication/climate-superpowers-how-the-eu-and-china-can-compete-and-cooperate-for-a-green-future/
Renewable energy opportunity for EU-China development cooperation, December 2020: https://www.euractiv.com/section/eu-china/interview/renewable-energy-opportunity-for-eu-china-development-cooperation/
China carbon neutrality in 2060: a possible game changer for climate, October 2020: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/87431/china-carbon-neutrality-2060-possible-game-changer-climate_en
Blanca is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. She studied her for her BA in Law at ESADE Law Faculty of Barcelona (Spain) and graduated in European Law during her MA degree at Maastricht University (The Netherlands). She specialised in Environmental Law and has been working in the field of climate and environmental policy for the last two years both for the private and public sector in Brussels (Belgium).