EU and China: Bail out the climate or sink

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Greenpeace Earth hot air balloon flies in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower. The banners underneath the balloon read "Rise up for renewables" in English and "renouvelons l'énergie" in French. [Micha Patault / Greenpeace]

The EU and China have two jobs when they meet in Brussels to discuss global action against climate change. The first is to figure out how to pump water out of the sinking ship faster than it’s pouring in, write Jorgo Riss and Shuo Li.

President Donald Trump has already undone his predecessor’s ‘clean power plan’, which had begun to wind down highly polluting coal power plants. He has pushed ahead with pipelines carrying climate-killing tar sands oil, and refused to back the Paris Agreement at last week’s G7 summit.

Both the EU and China had previously urged the US to stay in the Paris Agreement, and stressed America’s role in tackling climate change. The G7’s admission that it had failed to reach an agreement on climate action, due to President Trump’s resistance, is a troubling sign. Angela Merkel called their discussions difficult and dissatisfying, in what counts as strong language for one usually so stoic.

If this ship sinks, we’re all going down with it. So either China and the EU push their American counterparts into doing their fair share, or they resign themselves to picking up the US’s slack, on top of their own commitments. The transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy is a crucial area both for the EU and China to act, and for them to pressure US action. The energy sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s also a sector with proven, ready-to-use alternatives to polluting technologies.

Still taking on water

Some holes have been plugged, but the boat is still taking on water. The EU and China are switching to clean energy production too slowly to keep global temperature rises below levels that will cause catastrophic changes in our climate. China installs new wind turbines at the rate of one per hour, but still produces 62% of its energy with coal. The EU’s investment in renewable energy, once the highest in the world, has dropped off in recent years as its targets for renewables were too low compared to the real rate of growth.

There is great potential for both societies, in the spirit of healthy competition, to outdo themselves and each other while keeping the ship afloat. Jean-Claude Juncker stated in his speech to the European Parliament in 2014 that he wanted the European Union to be the world number one in renewable energy. But Xi Jinping seems to have taken that mantle for China, as China installs more new wind and solar than the EU and has more total wind and solar already installed.

There are tangible benefits, as well as bragging rights, to excelling in the race to be number one in renewable energy. There is an opportunity for the technical prowess of both EU and China to shine, as wind, solar and hydro generators are continuously refined and improved. Renewables are also a great source of sustainable jobs, with more than 1.1 million people employed in the sector in the EU and more than 3.5 million in China.

The same pattern holds for the US, despite Trump’s campaign focus on fossil fuel jobs, with the 769,000 people employed in renewable energy dwarfing the 187,000 in oil, gas and coal. Improvements in local air and water quality will also benefit all those living in areas currently beside fossil fuel electricity generation. And communities will no longer be displaced or have their environments polluted by drilling, mining, fracking and piping of fossil fuels.

Accelerate the global response

The transition to renewable energy presents a great opportunity in both China and the EU to expand energy production outside the traditional players. Families, communities, local authorities and small businesses can produce their own electricity – either by installing solar or wind generation on their buildings and land, or by investing in a renewable project elsewhere. A study by research group CE Delft last year found that, by 2050, over half of the people in the EU could be involved in producing their own electricity through wind and solar, and meet around 45% of the EU’s electricity needs. Mobilising all parts of society to meet the challenge of the energy transition also brings employment and development to rural areas, taps into new sources of investment and shares the rewards.

European and Chinese leaders must now accelerate the world’s response to climate change by putting their economies firmly on the path to 100% renewable energy. The EU is currently revisiting its renewable energy and electricity market legislation – the perfect opportunity to put Europe on track to stop its energy sector wrecking the climate. To reach its 2030 climate target, China will have to build more power capacity than the entire US energy system, without adding any fossil fuel generation, and perform systematic surgery on its electricity system.

Both blocs must phase out coal, as a priority. As well as emitting more greenhouse gases than any other major source of electricity in either the EU or China, coal power stations pollute the air to such an extent that they are blamed for annual deaths of 22,900 in people the EU and 366,000 people in China.

Without decisive action and strong leadership from the EU and Chinese, and their pressure on the US to keep its promises, the historic agreement reached in Paris 18 months ago will be worthless. There can be no delay in the transition to 100% renewable energy – the world is a long way from safe harbour.

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