Climate change is an area of cooperation for China and the Five Eyes countries

May 17, 2021

Despite the deterioration in relations between the UK and China, they will continue to cooperate on climate change due to the force of circumstances because the UK is hosting the UN Conference of the Parties on climate change in Scotland in November – referred to as COP26.

The UK is keen to showcase its leadership to play host to the most important climate change meeting in the world this year. The UK has fittingly put an aggressive national commitment on the table to cut greenhouse gases by 78 percent by 2035 from 1990 levels.

For COP26 to be considered a success, others need to make strong pledges too. Fortunately, the two largest emitting countries in the world, China and the US, have committed to do their bit to make COP26 a success, which they announced in a joint statement in Shanghai on 17 April.

The current leadership in both countries take climate change seriously and they also have two of the world’s most experienced hands – Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry – to help create the right framework for US-China cooperation.

Xie and Kerry have collaborated before during the Obama administration. Having made solid national commitments, they were able to then ask others to follow suit by making pledges under the UN Paris Agreement in 2015, a multilateral climate treaty. That was a high point in not just US-China cooperation but global collaboration.

The 2021 joint statement sets the stage for potential longer-term Sino-US cooperation despite their mounting conflicts. Their relations went off the rails from the Trump administration that also pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, which the Biden administration has re-joined.

The two countries are to “continue to discuss … concrete actions in the 2020s” to decarbonize power generation, energy storage, grid reliability, carbon capture, hydrogen development, renewables deployment, green agriculture, energy efficient buildings, low-carbon transportation, as well as aviation and shipping.

This is a long and broad list. Interestingly, it includes not only established technologies, such as renewables like wind and solar energy, but also emerging ones, especially battery storage, carbon capture, and hydrogen as a new form of clean fuel that could be important for powering vehicles.

The joint statement also refers to cooperation in “circular economy”, which aims to redesign production processes to minimise the use of virgin resources, as well as biodiversity protection.

Xie and Kerry know very well the importance of pushing for fast-paced decarbonization in fighting the climate crisis, and that without US-China cooperation, it will be just that much harder for the world to achieve carbon neutrality mid-century when the challenge is already monumental.

The facts are sobering. According to the UN, to stop the climate crisis “from being a permanent catastrophe”, the world must cooperate to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The latest science shows the 2 degrees upper limit in the Paris Agreement is now seen as too high, and the world has already warmed by 1 degree.

China has pledged to achieve peak carbon by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, as well as to limit the increase of coal consumption during the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) and phase down coal during the 15th Five Year Plan (2026-30). This is encouraging as it is the largest coal consuming country in the world.

So far, among the Five Eyes, the UK has the most impressive commitment as noted above; America has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2030; Canada has committed to carbon reduction of 40 to 45 percent by 2030 below 2005 levels; but Australia and New Zealand has yet to make new commitments. The Australian prime minister only said Australia will make “bankable” reductions and do it by technical innovations and private sector dynamism.

The joint statement between China and the US should give Australian and New Zealand food for thought. Despite their many differences, the statement leaves the door open for all kinds of further cooperation.

For example, China will need to import massive quantities of natural gas to ramp down coal in the near future and before being able to roll out more clean energy, such as nuclear, hydrogen and biofuels. It is not difficult to envisage deals where the US supplies China with natural gas and China supplies the US with solar panels, and that they can collaborate on developing batteries for energy storage and new fuels.

Such possibilities should also be attractive to Australia. Reducing emissions from coal, and cooperating with China on carbon capture, and green agriculture, should also be of interest. Perhaps climate change is the way to get Australia and China to reset its relations that has plunged to new lows in recent months, and at the same time beef up Australia’s commitment before COP26.

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