This article is part of the series Facing China.
Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
In its strategic documents, the European Union describes China simultaneously as a “competitor,” “a systemic rival” and “a cooperation partner.” The idea of partnership — with “closely aligned objectives” no less — refers to one single issue: climate change.
Without China on board, the reasoning goes, it becomes impossible to tackle global warming and achieve global targets for reducing carbon emissions.
That reasoning, rooted in a naïve view of multilateralism, is wrong. Acting on it seriously undercuts the EU’s ability to hold China accountable for its human rights abuses or economic distortions, all with little tangible benefit to the fight against climate change.
Even under the Trump presidency, with the exception of 2018, U.S. emissions have been falling due to the gradual move away from coal.
Even with a stellar record of decarbonization, which it does not have, China’s cooperation would not be enough to reverse the projected rise in global temperatures. The country may be the world’s largest carbon emitter, accounting for more than a quarter of all global emissions, but it is not the only important emitter among emerging economies.
If the rising demand for energy in India or sub-Saharan Africa is met with fossil fuels, a green China will have only a marginal effect on the outcome, hardly justifying the political concessions and pussyfooting extended to the regime to make it participate in periodic climate summitry.
The European Commission admits that China “is constructing coal-fired power stations in many countries,” undermining the goals of the Paris Agreement. Even more seriously, its own domestic pledges — including peaking carbon emissions before 2030 and reducing, by 2030, carbon intensity to 60 percent below its 2005 level — are deemed “highly insufficient” to slow down the growth in global temperatures by Climate Action Tracker.
Europeans might applaud themselves for bringing China to the negotiating table, but the reality is not cheerful. Between 2000 and 2018, China’s annual emissions tripled, from 3.71 billion tons of carbon to 11.18 billion tons.
Perhaps those would have gone up even more without its commitments. More likely, there are limits to what climate multilateralism can achieve, as the world learned the hard way in 2009 in Copenhagen, when leaders failed to agree to any binding commitments on reducing carbon emissions.
In many ways, the 2015 Paris Agreement was a bow to reality, an acknowledgment of the fact that there was no alternative to countries’ making progress on climate change at their own pace, driven by factors often unrelated to the politics on display at large multilateral gatherings.
The most important of those factors are available technologies and their costs. While the United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. economy has been decarbonizing since 2004. Even under the Trump presidency, with the exception of 2018, U.S. emissions have been falling due to the gradual move away from coal.
None of this is to suggest that policy does not matter. Accelerating the rate of decarbonization requires putting a price on carbon emissions, helping renewables get off the ground through subsidies and channeling public funds into research and development to help create better green technologies.
However, policymakers ought to remember that “the ultimate goal of [such policies] is to develop non-carbon energy supplies at unsubsidized costs less than those using fossil fuels,” as noted in the 2010 Hartwell Paper, written by a group of climate policy academics as a response to the failure of the Copenhagen summit.
As such, ensuring that all relevant stakeholders make binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions is far less important than bringing new technologies to the market that will make coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels obsolete and uneconomical.
The Chinese themselves understand this logic well. While Europeans were fretting that pushback against Beijing’s predatory practices might cause the regime to give up its efforts to stop climate change, China has become the world’s largest investor in solar energy, accounting today for practically half of the world’s production.
Many of the underlying reasons for China’s rise to dominance in this sector — catastrophic air pollution in Chinese cities or energy security — are only tangentially related to climate summitry.
That is both good and bad news for Western democracies. On the one hand, it brings the world, including China, closer to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. It also suggests that the economics of green technology have a life independent of the tedious multilateral politics of climate change, which well-meaning Western liberals have elevated to an important article of faith.
On the other hand, there is a distinct first-mover advantage for those who bring cheap and reliable green technologies to the market. It is therefore in the interest of Europe, the U.S., and their allies that the bulk of the economic and political gains from such technologies not be realized by our “competitors” and “systemic rivals.”
The sooner European policymakers — and the aspiring Biden administration — realize that the route toward decarbonization goes not through a global “Kumbaya” with unfriendly regimes but through a deliberate competition for technological superiority, the greater the odds of avoiding the worst climate scenarios — without compromising our values to the service of the world’s authoritarians.
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe