Interests, Not Altruism, Drive China’s New Climate Ambition (Seirra Club Oct 5, 2020)

Oct 18, 2020

In a surprising and widely praised statement, President Xi recently announced that China would significantly increase its carbon reduction goals.

Xi committed to adopt “more vigorous” policies and measures designed to peak China’s CO2 emissions before 2030 and, more significantly, to “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” China had never before had a mid-century goal of any kind. It now has one of the most ambitious in the world.

China’s new target could have an enormous impact on the global effort to contain the climate crisis. Climate Action Tracker, the world’s leading authority on national pledges, concluded that achieving this goal would reduce global temperature rise by as much as .3°C, the largest single reduction they had ever seen in a national pledge. They marveled that this will require actions such as phasing out the conventional use of fossil fuels that were simply “unthinkable” just a few years ago.

So how did a goal that was recently unthinkable become “thinkable?” What led China—historically a reluctant and inconstant climate actor—to change tack so decisively? And more importantly, what can we learn from China’s newfound ambition about how to induce other major emitters to take on much stronger targets?

The Paris Agreement surely played a part. But nothing in the Paris Agreement required China to set such a groundbreaking target, and China has long maintained that, as a developing country, it should not be expected to take the lead in combating climate change. Nor is it likely that China was motivated by an inclination to take on its fair share of the global effort, a sense of solidarity with the most vulnerable, a desire to “build trust” through unilateral action, or any of the other principles that are often said to drive ambition under the Paris Agreement.

In fact, China’s motivation for dramatically raising its ambition is far more mundane and familiar—it is increasingly in its national interest to do so. Three new kinds of incentives, each of which originates largely outside of the Paris Agreement, have come together to make it advantageous for China to work to more aggressively decarbonize its economy.

The first is the rapidly improving economics of climate solutions. China’s leaders know that it cannot indefinitely sustain the high costs and public health burdens of its ruinously dirty economy. They can see that the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy, battery storage, and electric vehicles make large-scale investment in low-carbon technologies an imperative for continued prosperity and economic competitiveness. They also see that China’s companies are well-positioned to capture a substantial portion of the multitrillion dollar opportunities in these new markets. And they understand that devoting some of their Covid-19 stimulus to green investments offers an attractive opportunity for economic revitalization.  Accordingly, they recognize that it is now in China’s core interest to begin an aggressive transition to a low-carbon economy, quite apart from the climate benefits, and regardless of what other countries do to reduce their own emissions.

The second incentive for China to come forward with an ambitious mid-century goal is the growing expectation that all countries will do so. This not an explicit requirement of the Paris Agreement, but rather a norm that is emerging to support it. The Paris Agreement set a collective goal of balancing sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, and called on each country to develop long-term strategies to help achieve this balance. However, it did not specify precise time frames or outcomes for those strategies. After the IPCC’s 1.5°C  report clarified the dangers of exceeding that temperature threshold, an expectation began to emerge that these strategies should outline a trajectory to “net-zero CO2 by 2050,” in line with the IPCC’s 1.5°C model pathways. At least 70 countries have now set out such plans or have committed to do so.

As “net zero by 2050” gains broader acceptance as the benchmark of appropriate long-term action, any country that declines to put forward a mid-century strategy, or that tables a strategy that is plainly incompatible with the 1.5°C goal, risks being perceived as shirking its  responsibilities to the international community. Although China’s new target  falls somewhat short of “net zero by 2050,” it  has been well-received because it represents such an enormous total reduction, and because China is now the first major emitter outside of the E.U. to put forward such an ambitious goal. Had China refused to adhere to this emerging norm, it could have undermined China’s ambition to expand its global reach and to usurp influence from a feckless and historically weak American administration. And having embraced this emerging norm, it has further entrenched the expectation that other major emitters will do the same.

The last factor that may have influenced China’s decision to commit to a strong mid-century target is the smart, climate-focused diplomacy by the E.U. Historically, countries have tended to treat climate change as a secondary foreign policy issue; important, perhaps, but clearly subordinate to security, trade, and other issues that were traditionally seen to more directly implicate their core national interests. As the impacts of climate change have become more dire and immediate, however, climate change has risen up the diplomatic agenda in many capitals, including in some of the more powerful members of the E.U. Thus, the E.U. has become far more assertive in its climate diplomacy, for example by threatening new, climate-skeptic  governments in Australia and Brazil with trade consequences if they followed through on campaign pledges to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

This assertiveness seems to have influenced China’s pledge. Shortly before Xi’s announcement, the E.U. and China held a leader-level summit that, at the insistence of the E.U., focused on a narrow set of priority issues including climate change. The E.U. pressed China to set more aggressive emission reduction targets, including peaking its emissions by 2025 and achieving net zero by 2060.  By coupling this pressure with a credible threat to adopt border carbon adjustments to protect its industries as it strengthens its own targets, the E.U. was able ramp up the diplomatic and economic costs of noncooperation.

The lessons of China’s unexpected and pathbreaking announcement are clear. The rapidly improving economics of climate solutions, the growing expectation that all countries will strive to achieve the 1.5°C target, and the strategic use of diplomatic leverage by climate champions are creating new incentives for countries to do more than would have seemed possible only a few years ago. While these incentives do not arise directly from the Paris Agreement, they can probably do more to change state behavior than the limited incentives created by the agreement itself.  If the world is to achieve the promise of Paris, climate champions must look beyond the agreement and continue to develop and apply these external incentives to help accelerate countries’ actions.

A future US administration that is creative and committed to climate action could make enormous progress on strengthening all three elements of this emerging incentive structure. It could bring America’s unparalleled industrial capacity, technological prowess, and financial resources to bear to continue driving down the costs of low-carbon technologies and to provide targeted assistance—making it increasingly in other countries’ narrow economic interests to more quickly decarbonize their economies. It could build on the US’s historical role as the leading definer, promoter, and enforcer of global norms to begin to promulgate new standards of conduct that are appropriate for a carbon constrained world, such as limitations on the development or funding of new fossil fuel resources. And it could deploy America’s unmatched diplomatic resources and unrivaled capacity to lead the world in confronting common challenges to cajole countries to do more—and to pressure and penalize those that refuse.

To do this effectively, a future administration cannot subordinate climate change to other foreign policy considerations. It must recognize climate change for what it is—the single most immediate and imposing threat to our core national interests—and organize our foreign policy accordingly.

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