Sinophobic nonsense on COVID-19 and climate finger pointing has been a feature of American and indeed western politics for the past few years. Much of this is attributable to China’s growing economic power, with the expectation of it exceeding US GDP in the early 2030s leading to economic angst in North America and Europe. Much of it is attributable to the unfortunate coincidence of COVID-19 arising in China, followed by their excellent response to the pandemic, in stark contrast to the USA and many European states.
And so, half way through COP26 in Glasgow, for China and the USA to unveil a joint climate action collaboration pledge is remarkable, possibly historic and definitely galvanizing. So what’s in it?
Possibly the most impactful element is this:
“The United States and China, alarmed by reports including the Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report released on August 9th, 2021, further recognize the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis.”
Alarmed. Seriousness. Urgency. Crisis.
The two biggest economies in the world, the two countries with the largest current CO2e emissions, the two countries with the largest joint trade, and the largest rhetoric of opposition in the world, are united against a common and alarming enemy. That’s a powerful image. That’s powerful language. That’s a powerful alliance in the face of adversity.
“They nevertheless recognize that there remains a significant gap between such efforts, including their aggregate effect, and those that need to be taken to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
They acknowledge the inadequacy of current climate action efforts. They aren’t pretending that they or others are doing enough. Once again, powerful. The two most puissant countries in the world between soft and hard power admit their own inadequacy to date. Vulnerability. Admission. Acceptance.
“The two sides are intent on seizing this critical moment to engage in expanded individual and combined efforts to accelerate the transition to a global net zero economy.”
Sides. An acknowledgment of their somewhat adversarial relationship, and yet a commitment to do more individually and together toward a low-carbon future. But the first inkling of challenge slips in. “Net zero economy”. So much latitude in net zero. So much potential for blah, blah, blah.
“maximizing the societal benefits of the clean energy transition”
Social justice in the transformation. The greatest good for the greatest number. Shh, don’t say Green New Deal.
“policies to encourage decarbonization and electrification of end-use sectors”
Electrify everything that can be electrified. Very strong.
“deployment and application of technology such as CCUS and direct air capture”
Sigh. The blah, blah, blah of net zero. The loophole for the fossil fuel industry. The #hopium that allows people and industries to imagine that we’ll vacuum the CO2 out of the air and dispose of it somewhere. But no negotiated, hammered out, global bargain is perfect. As always, the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.
“additional measures to enhance methane emission control, at both the national and sub-national levels”
Excellent. Methane has turned out to be a major part of the problem. Both CO2 and CH4 need control. Fracking and upstream leakage has become a major part of the problem, and hence needs control. As per my assessment of North American and European LCAs on upstream methane, it’s a problem.
“Policies that support the effective integration of high shares of low-cost intermittent renewable energy”
Also excellent. China built as much wind and solar, 72 and 48 GW, as the rest of the world combined in 2020, and has a 2030 target of 1.2 TW. The United States was once leading but has been lagging in recent years, so both of them committing to getting the cheapest, fastest to construction forms of generation onto the grid in large quantities is a step up.
“Transmission policies that encourage efficient balancing of electricity supply and demand across broad geographies”
Another excellent commitment. Knowing as I do, that China has the longest overland HVDC transmission connection in the world, has more HVDC connection than any other country, is working on an Asian supergrid, and has proposed a polar HVDC intercontinental supergrid, I’m glad to see the USA stepping up. As the book Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy makes clear, the USA’s patchwork and relative sub-national strength make major infrastructure challenging.
“China will phase down coal consumption during the 15th Five Year Plan and make best efforts to accelerate this work.”
And the downside of China. Still needs a lot of coal generation. Opening up its coal mines right now due to global coal, oil and gas disruptions as the markets diminish. Imperfect, again.
“Resolve to ensure that their collective and individual efforts are informed by, inter alia, the best available science”
This is something China persists in, while the USA fluctuates with the vagaries of elections. Another potential failures of adherence to science is coming in the mid-terms in November of 2022. China may not make decisions that are objectively in the best interests of the world, but at least they always pay attention to reality.
“Both countries recognize the importance of the commitment made by developed countries to the goal of mobilizing jointly $100b per year by 2020 and annually through 2025 to address the needs of developing countries, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, and stress the importance of meeting that goal as soon as possible.”
This one is interesting. China wants — reasonably according to many, unreasonably according to many — to be considered a developing country and hence at minimum a non-contributor to global aid and possibly a recipient. This statement ignores the ambiguity, so what exactly does it mean?
“The two sides intend to establish a “Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s,” which will meet regularly to address the climate crisis and advance the multilateral process, focusing on enhancing concrete actions in this decade.”
And finally, a commitment to bilateral cooperation and further movement between the two global superpowers. That’s significant.
So what’s missing?
Sadly, no reference to pricing carbon or carbon border adjustments. While both agree on renewables, the assertion many are pointing to about China’s commitment to nuclear power is missing from this announcement. Perhaps it’s not as important to China as many like to assert. But inversely, China’s stated intent to build 150 nuclear reactors is unmentioned in this statement. While I’ve published on the over achievement of wind and solar vs nuclear in China’s programs, I know China will build more nuclear power plants even as the USA slowly retires theirs. The comparative ascendance of China is elided.
This statement, coming as it does in COP25 between the two most power nations on Earth, accepting their responsibilities and failures as it does, leaving open doors for the failures of CCUS and DAC as it does, is still a powerful document. It has loopholes, but the intent is clear.
May this be recognized in coming decades as a significant moment in climate action, as it comes to pass without weird political disfunction in either country, but especially the USA, which left both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement in the past 20 years.