Hey you climate cynics. The new US-China climate pact matters

Climate Economy

Hey you climate cynics. The new US-China climate pact matters

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Xi Jinping is staking his legacy on climate action.

By: Frank Gibney and Peter McKillop

Like so many conference “fireside chats,” Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait and John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, had settled into the bonhomie of earnest “conversation,” this one on the topic of “diplomacy and COP26.” 

The conversation lost its monotone when China came up. “There is a specific China problem,” Micklethwait said to Kerry. “They have not done anything here except to say no financing coal outside of China.” 

Kerry cut him off. “It’s not fair to say that. I urge you to go read their plan.” By which he meant China’s publication of two key climate documents known as the “1+N” policy framework, released last month, and intended to guide the nation’s next two five-year plans on how to  meet the country’s goals to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060. 

Perhaps Micklethwait hadn’t done his diplomatic homework. Twenty-four hours after the interview, China and the United States “surprised” the world with a joint cooperation agreement to combat climate change. The fact that much of the world was surprised speaks volumes about the perils of holding onto stereotypical views of nations, companies and technologies as climate change shakes up long-standing geopolitical, cultural and economic norms. That agreement will be followed up by a call next week between the U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping where climate will be a central topic. 

In truth, there can no discussion of the global climate crisis that does not include China. So in a way, it really doesn’t matter that COP’s hundreds of delegates haggled relentlessly over the arcane language of a final statement for the conference. Maintaining the 1.5-degree cap on the increase in global carbon emissions is by most recent scientific accounts, moot. What matters is how much climate action China and the United States are ready for, and whether Beijing  and Washington will cooperate. 

There is no discussion of the global climate crisis that does not include China.

None of this was lost on Kerry, who recognizes that 40% of all fossil fuel emissions emanate from China and the United States. Unlike Micklethwait, he’d been studying China’s “1+N” plan for weeks. And since arriving in Glasgow, he had pushed through a marathon of late-night, secret negotiations with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. 

As in Paris in 2015, Kerry knew COP would be declared a failure unless the two superpowers cut through the gloomy pessimism of Glasgow and did what superpowers are supposed to do: lead. 

They appear to be doing just that. Kerry compared the new “China-U.S. Joint Glasgow Declaration,” to the last time two great superpowers engaged on an existential threat to humanity. In that case, it was the 1980s-era nuclear arms reduction deals between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Now, as it was then, Kerry said “you have to look beyond the differences sometimes to find a way forward.”

There is reason to hope that China will follow through on the details of its sweeping plan. For one thing, the Chinese Communist Party has learned (painfully) not to publicize mega goals unless its leadership is prepared to support them. Announcements and discussions in recent weeks have made it clear that China believes a comprehensive climate plan is in its national self-interest. It seeks to meet twin goals of national energy self-reliance and establishing itself as an equal, perhaps superior, global superpower. 

If Xi Jinping doesn’t yet fully comprehend the paramount importance of climate action in achieving that status, he should. Even China can’t afford to fight every battle, and in terms of global value, climate far outstrips military domination of the South China Sea, a takeover of Taiwan, or even China’s economic growth. Xi’s legacy depends on whether China is effective in curbing global warming, just as Deng Xiaoping became a paramount leader by unleashing a generation of carbon-burning market reform in the early 1990s. 

Xi has already secured the imprimatur of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which passed a resolution this week designating him as a “core historical figure,” just like Deng and Mao Zedong – and leader for life. Of course, Mao secured that legacy in part by appointing himself, despite the humanitarian disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It was Deng who demonstrated that actions speak louder than words. It won’t be easy, in the age of information and global interdependence, for Xi to do as Mao did, and paper over a failure.

The agreement with the U.S. is also a vindication of Xi’s climate credibility, which has been tarnished by unrelenting criticism of China’s dirty coal policies.  In signing the pact with China, Washington is acknowledging, again, that the climate crisis cannot be addressed unless it cooperates with Beijing, even as the two are increasingly bitter rivals on other fronts.  It’s also a rare PR victory in a world where shrill cynicism is the default response to whatever China does. When Micklethwait mocked the effectiveness of previous five-year plans, Kerry could only chuckle and asked him to remember that Pudong, the city across the river from Shanghai, was once little more than cow pastures. “It is now Hong Kong.” 

In signing the pact with China, Washington is acknowledging, again, that the climate crisis cannot be addressed unless it cooperates with Beijing, even as the two are increasingly bitter rivals on other fronts.

China’s “1+N” climate policy framework will guide every element of China’s state, industrial, social and military development for the next decade. It has specific, measurable targets. By 2025, or in three years,  China will lower energy consumption per unit of GDP, by 13.5% from the 2020 level. Carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP will drop by 18% while the share of non-fossil energy consumption will reach 20%.

By 2030, China promises CO2 emissions will peak, stabilize and begin to decline. Energy consumption per unit of GDP will have dropped by more than 65% compared to the 2005 level, it predicts. The share of non-fossil energy consumption will reach around 25%. The total installed capacity of wind power and solar power will be 1200 gigawatts.

By 2060, China says it will be carbon neutral. Non-fossil energy consumption will be over 80%. (The United States has set a goal to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035). If these targets are met, China  will have reached Xi’s ultimate goal of “achieving the fruitful results in ecological civilization and reaching a new level of harmony between humanity and nature.”

But reaping the fruit of climate harmony will require key elements that are currently in short supply — trust and cooperation. Unlike the previous Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, conflict resolution is no longer solely in the hands of its leaders. Unlike nuclear arsenals, neither nation controls the fate and fury of “Mother Nature,” as Kerry reminded Micklethwait. When dealing with a natural force far greater and more unpredictable than either superpower, it will take far more than five-year plans and breakthrough technological moonshots. It will take a new world order that is yet to be discovered. 

Written by

Frank B. Gibney Jr.