China has big climate plans but the EU isn’t impressed

Time is money.
Time is money.
Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo
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Chinese president Xi Jinping made a major and unexpected announcement on Tuesday (Sept. 22) at the UN general assembly: China, the world’s second largest economy and largest polluter, will become carbon-neutral by 2060.

And yet the European Union, one of China’s biggest allies on climate change, seems decidedly unimpressed.

Climate change and the EU-China relationship

2020 was meant to be a “super-year” for climate change action, with China and the EU taking the lead and the US a back seat. China would host the UN biodiversity conference in October and Europe the UN climate change conference (COP26) in November. Meanwhile, EU and Chinese leaders would make progress on tackling climate change in the negotiations for a joint investment agreement, meant to culminate in a September summit in Leipzig, Germany.

Covid-19 scuttled all those plans but it also changed the dynamic between China and the EU. Early on in the pandemic, the bloc clashed with China over its handling of the coronavirus and the actions of its diplomats. Since then, relations between Brussels and Beijing have soured over human rights and the treatment of Chinese tech giant Huawei.

This has affected negotiations for the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). EU officials say sustainable development is one of the key areas in which they haven’t made enough progress to move forward with a deal by the end of this year. And yet in response to an email query about whether China’s carbon-neutrality pledge would impact the CAI negotiations, a source within European institutions said the two were not connected and pointed out that the EU has committed to achieving climate neutrality in 2050 and carbon neutrality in the early 2040s.

Being carbon neutral typically implies reaching net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, usually by minimizing emissions and offsetting the rest with technologies like carbon capture and storage. Being climate neutral means reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The distinction is a bit nit-picky in this case; CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas in the world but it accounts for roughly 76% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So if China, which emits 26% of the world’s greenhouse gases, were to reach net zero CO2 emissions in 40 years, it would represent a huge achievement.

What did China actually pledge to do about climate change?

In his speech, Xi Jinping said China‘s “aim” is to reach peak CO2 emissions “before 2030” and to “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” The first target, says Sam Geall, executive director of the climate-change-focused publication China Dialogue, isn’t particularly ambitious or new. China already agreed to it five years ago during the COP21 conference in Paris. “The truth is, everyone has known for a long time that China could easily peak at least five years earlier,” Geall said.

But the second target is both new and ambitious. According to the independent scientists behind the Climate Action Tracker, if China achieves its goal, “it would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3°C, the biggest single reduction ever estimated” by the group. Joanna Lewis, associate professor of science, technology, and international affairs at Georgetown University, writes in China Dialogue that “almost all of China’s climate and energy targets in recent years have been met or exceeded, so anything president Xi Jinping announces in such a public forum is not just symbolic.”

A spokesperson for the European Commission called China’s announcement “a very important and welcome step in the right direction” but added that “a lot remains to be done.” Specifically, the EU wants China to stop building or financing coal-fired power plants and to roll out the national emission trading system it committed to in 2017.

Geall argues it’s symbolic that Xi “chose not to make this as a joint announcement with Europe last week when climate was on the agenda.” Instead, he made a unilateral move at the UN, which stood in sharp contrast to US president Donald Trump’s pugilistic speech, in which he praised “America’s exceptional environmental record” while bashing China’s “rampant pollution.” The US is the world’s second largest polluter and president Trump has overseen one of the most significant rollbacks in environmental protection regulations in the country’s history.

Additional reporting by Tim McDonnell