The Giant Panda in the room
Next week sees the annual Earth Day come round once again on the 22nd of the month. United States President, Joe Biden, is convening an online global climate summit to mark the day and act as a keep point on the road towards the COP26 gathering in Glasgow this autumn. He has invited 40 world leaders to join him, including Xi Jinping of China.
It is expected that at next weeks event, Biden will formally announce the US’s emissions targets, a defining moment in his drive to regain morally leadership on the subject following the failures and denials of the Trump years. But, just as importantly, he also hopes to be able to announce more detail on how China hopes to hit it’s climate targets too. In order to do that, intensive diplomacy is going on this week between the U.S climate envoy, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterparts.
Once again, grey haired men chatting over zoom might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but it’s a key moment in our increasingly tough battle to meet the global warming targets agreed to at Paris in 2015.
Time is running out
It is only 2021, we’ve got another 29 years until 2050, we’ve got time to fix these climate issues and meet the goal of minimising global warming to an average of 1.5C right?
Err, maybe. But probably not. The sands of time are running away from us and a lost two years spent fighting the Covid pandemic whilst vital for the health of humanity, was something we couldn’t afford if we’re going to limit the damage to the planet. The problem is something called the carbon budget. Scientists have worked out how much more carbon dioxide we can release into the atmosphere before it is impossible to hit the 1.5C goal. Right now, if we continue to emit at the levels we currently are globally, we have somewhere between six and eight years of carbon budget left until we’ve blown the lot. It’s meant to last 29 years.
Because of this impending pressure, the idea of a gently tapering down of carbon emissions over the next 29 years is pretty much a non starter if we want to keep warming down. We need to do a lot of the work quickly. In fact, we need to be a long way there by 2030. The good news is, as we’ve mentioned before, we have a lot of the solutions. We have all the renewable energy technology we need to completely give up fossil fuels, we just need the political leadership to pass the laws required to make that happen. We have the technology to move everyone to electric vehicles. Again, it just takes the right incentives to make it a reality. We know how to retrofit every home to the highest insulation standards. We understand the science of the changes we all need to make to the food we eat. All those answers are there now.
They just need to become the norm. All that takes is political action. And that is why grey men on a zoom call really, really matter now.
China is a major part of any solution. It has laid out a target to be Carbon Dioxide net zero by 2060. That is a problem. Firstly, it’s way too slow and secondly it doesn’t mention cutting the other greenhouse gases such as methane which can be up to ten times more damaging in the short term. (It also dissipates from the atmosphere a lot quicker than carbon so its less of a long term issue). Not only that, but China is the largest user of coal powered power stations and that use is actually still increasing. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all. On its current trajectory, despite a pledge that emissions will peak by 2030, it can only be presumed that China is betting the house on some form of carbon capture technology that will allow it keep using such a dirty source of electricity. That sort of innovation is at least a decade away from being proved to operate at the scale required, let alone be rolled out on a mass scale. Such a scenario sees China continue to emit increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from its power industry for another 10 years potentially. We definitely don’t have the carbon budget for that.
It is important to note that China is already the worlds largest producer of renewable energy. In 2019 it produced 790GW of power from green sources which was double the output of the second highest producing nation, the U.S. The trouble is, China needs huge amounts of energy to power its ever expanding economy and the demands of an urbanising, increasingly affluent population. The result of those demands is that despite being the worlds biggest producer of renewable energy, it only accounted for just over 25% of the total used across the nation in 2019. The vast bulk of the rest came from those coal fired power plants.
China does recognise the need to move quickly on environmental issues. Dense urban smog, severe droughts in the north of the country, energy security and other issues all combined to make this an issue of immense strategic importance to the authorities in Beijing. However, they view the climate crisis as one predominantly caused by Western nations historically and therefore feel the burden of cleaning up the mess should fall on those who have done the bulk of the damage in the first place. It is the argument of the poorer global south and it is not unreasonable in many ways. If you’re in the Solomon Islands and watching parts of your country just disappear into the sea as a result of rising sea levels, despite being responsible for less than 0.01% of global emissions, you’re not going to feel its your problem to solve.
But China is not the Solomon Islands.
With Power comes Responsibility.
China is the second most powerful nation on the planet, without its engagement on climate issues globally, we have no chance of preventing the worst of the scientific predictions from becoming a reality. This presents a challenge for western democracies. China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority has been labelled a genocide by some activists and nations. There have been calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics due to be held in Beijing next year to be boycotted. It is sabre rattling ever more aggressively towards Taiwan and locking up peaceful democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Beijing continues to obfuscate on the origins of the Coronavirus and militarise tiny shoals in the South China sea that is has no territorial claim to. There is an awful lot of Chinese behaviour to feel aggrieved by currently. Despite all that, we still have to engage.
For China, the climate crisis presents an opportunity. A chance to act as a global power for a greater good. This is rare for all the reasons listed above and calls for China to go beyond its self-interested foreign policy default position of non-interference in another countries affairs. it requires a genuine realisation that this moment offers up a window to demonstrate moral leadership as opposed to the thuggish, fear based variety that the China Communist party normally deals in. As this blog was being finished, news was breaking that Xi Jinping was calling for closer global co-operation on climate issues following a telephone call with the leaders of France and Germany. This is a small positive sign.
China has done much already to boost its green credentials, all that renewable energy, bullet speed train travel and electric cars already sold do count for something. But, without weaning itself from its coal addiction and realising that its peaceful rise over the last 40 years brings responsibilities as well as benefits, we will all suffer. We all need this particular panda to rise to the moment and be a giant.
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