This article is part of our special report EU-China cooperation on climate change.
Over the course of the last two months, China has made an emissions-busting pledge, while Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential race is likely to shift Washington’s climate policy.
Earlier this year, China announced a goal to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 – a pledge welcomed by European leaders as part of the international climate drive.
“We are clearly singing from the same hymn sheet, with green high-quality and low-carbon development,” said Xie Zhenhua, a special adviser for climate to the Chinese government during a recent Brussels event.
“China and the EU still have very strong potential for cooperation and very strong synergies in the marketplace,” he added.
“EU countries have encountered many obstacles, but have responded with very positive leadership – there is a strong potential for cooperation between China and the EU,” Xie said.
“China attaches great importance to the issue of coal power plants and no longer supports any projects that are related to it,” he added.
“Our goals are based on very firm foundations. China exceeded much of the goals that were planned for 2020,” Xie said on his country’s green recovery.
But despite greening industry and Beijing increasingly distancing itself from coal, the transition is moving slowly.
Speaking at the European Business summit in Brussels, climate experts said Europe can lend expertise to help Beijing reach its goal.
“We are in a hurry to do things now because the things we do now will dictate what we do in 30 years’ time,” said Mauro Petriccione, director-general for climate action at the European Commission.
“The investment in industry, in energy, in systems, new business models, has to take place now, not in 10 years’ time. Ten years is too late,” he added.
Three-way climate diplomacy
Climate talks between the two had been part of a wider bilateral trade and investment agenda that Brussels hopes will help restore a level playing field between EU companies and state-owned Chinese firms that are not subject to the same CO2 emission obligations.
In spite of the economic crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU and China had sent “a clear political signal” in July that they are still committed to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
After the past EU-China summit in September, EU officials said Europe did not have any “red lines” on environmental issues at this stage and was ready to assist China in reducing its emissions.
Experts, however, reject the notion that climate diplomacy between Brussels and Beijing is on the right path.
“Chinese policy on climate is on and off. At the moment there are positive signals,” Susanne Dröge, Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said in a recent interview, describing the September dialogue as “not very productive”.
“Pressure for the EU and China to work together will be reduced once the US returns to the international playing field,” Dröge argued.
The win of Democrat Joe Biden has fuelled expectations that the new president will re-join the Paris Agreement, as he promised in his campaign, and might even follow the EU and China in setting a net-zero emissions goal for 2050.
Re-establishing that leadership role may not be so easy, however, according to US and Chinese diplomats involved in past climate negotiations.
The once-careful negotiations between Washington and Beijing unravelled to what experts say is the worst level in years under Donald Trump’s administration.
The US launched a trade war against China and has blamed Beijing for the COVID-19 pandemic, while China has cracked down on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, imprisoned Uighurs in Xinjiang and escalated tensions in the South China Sea.
Although European leaders rejoiced over the defeat of climate hard-liner Trump, there are doubts about how much Biden can achieve early in his presidency, given the narrow Republican majority in the US Senate.
“It will also depend on how much the US and China will cooperate again, and on which topics, for instance on climate finance – if the US is able to offer money again, maybe China will get back to offering money too – we don’t know,” said Dröge.
“But China is on and off regarding climate and will have to adjust first and foremost to the new US foreign policy altogether,” she concluded.
“The US plays a key-role in climate change governance and we look forward to the US rejoining the Paris Agreement,” Xie Zhenhua said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]