“China will increase its intended nationally determined contributions through more forceful policies and measures. We strive for (carbon dioxide) emissions to peak before 2030 and to be CO2 neutral before 2060. "
Xi Jinping's video-linked speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 22nd was not circulated widely in advance. But with these two short sentences, China's leader may have redefined the future prospects for humanity.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but in the world of climate policy, it's hard to overstate China's centrality. Thanks to the gigantic increase in economic growth since 2000 and its dependency on electricity generation from coal, China is now by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. At around 28 percent of the world's total, carbon dioxide produced in China (as opposed to that consumed in the form of Chinese exports) is roughly the same as that produced in the US, the European Union and India combined. Its emissions per capita are now higher than the EU's if we count carbon dioxide emissions on a production rather than a consumption basis.
Global warming is not caused by annual carbon flows, but by the stocks that have accumulated in the Earth's atmosphere over time. With an equal ration for every person on the planet, historical responsibility for excessive carbon accumulation remains largely with the United States and Europe. Even today, China's per capita emissions are less than half those of the United States. However, everything depends on China for future emissions. As concerned as Europeans and Americans may be about climate policies, they are essentially spectators of a future that will be determined by the decisions of the large, fast-growing Asian economies, with China well at the forefront. China's rapid recovery from the COVID-19 shock only reinforces this point. With his brief remarks, Xi has planned a large part of the future path.
As the impact of his utterances wore off, climate modellers cracked the numbers and concluded that if fully implemented, China's new engagement will lower the projected temperature rise by 0.2-0.3 degrees Celsius. It's the biggest cheap shock their models have ever produced.
There is, of course, an obvious question: is Xi real?
There are reasons to be skeptical. Xi does not promise an immediate turnaround. The peak is expected around 2030. Recent investments in new coal-fired power plants have been alarming. In the first six months of this year, a gigantic 58 gigawatt coal power plant was approved or announced. This is 25 percent of America's total installed capacity and more than China has forecast over the past two years combined. Because of the decentralization of decision-making, Beijing has only partial control over expanding coal-burning capacity. If Beijing is to actually implement this policy, it will face enormous political and technological challenges. There have been some encouraging noises about new renewable energy commitments. The transition costs will be enormous, however, and Beijing will have to face its own lobby on fossil fuels. As one commentator noted, Chinese officials laugh when they seriously seek advice from Europeans on "just transition" issues and discover that the total fossil fuel workforce that Germany needs to support is smaller than that of any single province in China . It will be a change that resembles the traumatic heavy industry shakeout of the Mao Zedong era in the 1990s.
But ambitious as the goal may be, Xi would not make such an announcement lightly. His words carry enormous weight within China. The first test of the seriousness of China's engagement will come when we get the final details of the 14th Five-Year Plan, the roadmaps that have guided China's economic development since the beginning of the communist era. They will show up at the end of the year.
For the outside world, the meaning is no less important. So far, the EU has been the only major bloc that has fully committed itself to neutrality. The hope for this year was an EU-China deal that would set the stage for ambitious new targets to be announced at the COP26 U.N. climate change conference scheduled for Glasgow in November. Instead of a summit in Leipzig, the Sino-EU meeting took place via video conference. The exchange was surprisingly extensive. Europeans wanted China to commit to peak emissions by 2025, and threatened the carbon taxes on imports from China if Beijing did not increase its ambitions. You have cautiously welcomed Xi's U.N. statement. You could hardly have expected more.
Xi's move is all the more remarkable given that China's relations not only with the United States, but also with the EU and India are deteriorating. This summer, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Himalayas, and Germany turned to an Indo-Pacific strategy centered on South Korea and Japan. Now the pressure will be on India, China's longtime partner, to defy Western demands for firm commitments to decarbonize, to make a similarly bold announcement of the climate.
While Europe will cheer Xi's commitment, it strategically underscores how awkward the EU's position is. On the one hand, Europeans increasingly want to take a strong position on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, human rights, and any geopolitical aggression in the South China Sea. Europe's remaining ties with the United States are real. But China has now underscored how firmly it aligns with a common EU climate policy agenda. The contrast with the Trump administration could hardly be stronger.
Beijing acted unilaterally. It plays by the rules of the Paris Climate Agreement, which revolves around independent national commitments. Beijing has not asked Europe or anyone else for anything in return. Nor did it wait for the November US election result.
This should give Americans a break on all sides. If the Republican China hawks mean what they say, it should surely be a mystery to them that Beijing, which they accuse of imposing the climate problem on the world to hobble America, is now making a grand and unilateral commitment to decarbonization.
But Xi's move should also be a wake-up call for proponents of proactive climate policy on the democratic side. Against the backdrop of the climate negotiations of the time of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, their approach is usually very transactional in its own way. The imagination one can still hear from US climate diplomacy veterans is that the world is waiting for America to come back to the table and that such a big deal in Paris in 2015 is inconceivable without the United States .
But 2020 is not 2015. The sobering truth is that neither the EU nor China are conditioning their climate policy towards the United States any longer. If you take the problem seriously how could you do it? Of course, if Washington supports a Joe Biden-style Green New Deal, that is welcome. But what would that mean, given the cavalier rejection of the Paris Agreement by the Americans, even if a new government made a new and more ambitious set of commitments? As long as the fundamentals of the American way of life remain non-negotiable and climate skepticism has a strong grip on public opinion, as long as the rearguard of the fossil fuel industry has the leverage it has, as long as one of the two main ruling parties and the media that make it support are villains. America’s democracy is incapable of making credible commitments.
Regardless of the election result, Donald Trump is sure to continue his declaration that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The date on which this decision takes effect is November 4th. Trump's reversal of US policy is possible because Obama never submitted the Paris Agreement to Congress. Indeed, following the early cap and trade legislation of 2009, the cornerstone of the original Green New Deal, the Obama administration abandoned major climate change legislative initiatives. Instead, it relied on regulatory intervention and the power of cheap fracked gas to create a humble decarbonization agenda based on ending coal.
Going forward, technology and markets will continue to be the two things that can be counted on to drive the US climate change agenda. Same goes for other recalcitrant fossil fuel addicts around the world. If there are affordable and high quality technological options, the move to green will come. With advances in solar and wind power, we are rapidly approaching this point. Whatever Trump's noise, coal is on the way out in the US too.
The US environmental movement remains an energetic and inspiring voice. America’s science and business, as well as the enthusiasm of the capital markets for companies like Tesla, can be used as a driving force for progress. There are undoubtedly positive synergies between market-driven energy decisions in the United States and the industrial policy options that the European and Chinese offerings of neutrality will open up. Solar and wind have already given examples of this. In the midst of the turmoil of US climate policy and the coronavirus, however, it is time to recognize a qualitative difference between the US, Europe and China. While Europe and China can maintain a strong public commitment to addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene with international commitments and public investment, the structure of the US political system and the depth and politicization of the culture wars make this impossible. Perversely, the only way to build bipartisan political support for a green transition in the United States is to position it as a national security issue in a Cold War competition with China.
Of course, one shouldn't despair of a more creative and positive scenario for the United States. The Green New Deal shows the way. The move from the left has postponed the terms of debate in the Democratic Party. Lately there have even been voices in the Republican Party calling for an adjustment to the reality of global warming. But who knows how the November 3rd electorate will decide and whether American institutions will hold their own. Everything hangs in the balance for the United States. This is not the case for the rest of the world.
As Xi made clear on September 22nd, the main actors are no longer waiting for the most important collective problem facing humanity. If the United States joins the decarbonization train, that will be all well and good. A constructive US contribution to US climate diplomacy is warmly welcomed. But the era in which the United States was the ultimate voice is over. China and Europe are decoupling.