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Time to step up to the climate plate

By Ben Abraham | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-15 08:06

China clearly enhancing its Nationally Determined Contributions ahead of COP 26 would provide much-needed leadership and a shot of political energy and ambition

The European Union's recent failure to agree on strengthening its long-term climate change mitigation target and the division on climate change actions evident at the recent G20 Summit in Osaka have again highlighted the leadership gap and need for greater international cooperation in global environmental governance.

Observers have increasingly been looking to China to step up and fill this void. This came through loud and clear at the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) annual general meeting held in Hangzhou in early June, along with the belief that this could revive and galvanize international environmental cooperation.

The stage is also set, with the next 18 months providing a number of key opportunities for China to step up and realize its leadership potential, including the UN Secretary-General's Climate Action Summit in New York this September; the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) in December 2020, when it is hoped countries will present enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement; and the formulation of China's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).

Capitalizing on these opportunities, however, will depend on China's ability to align these international and domestic agendas through forward-thinking policymaking.

Despite the weakness of the overall outcome on climate at the just-concluded G20 Osaka Summit, China, France, and the UN produced a communiqu��, on the margins of the summit in Osaka, reaffirming their commitments to combating the climate crisis. Importantly, it included a reaffirmation to enhancing NDCs, which presents a great opportunity for Chinese leadership.

Current NDCs have the world on track for a devastating 3 degrees of global warming this century, falling far short of what science tells us is required to avoid dangerous climate change. Although it has been reported that as many as 80 countries are considering strengthening their commitments at COP 26 in 2020, the biggest economy of the world has yet to strongly signal this intent.

China is well-positioned to step forward and do so, being already well on track to overachieve its current target of peaking carbon emissions by 2030. Enhancing its NDC would cement its climate leadership role and likely catalyze the ratcheting up of NDCs globally, leaving few excuses left on the table for those who are not. It would also be a powerful boost to broader international climate change cooperation. China clearly committing to enhance its NDC at or before COP 26 could provide the shot of political energy and ambition needed to overcome any inertia. In terms of timing, as some CCICED delegates suggested, the Climate Action Summit in September this year would provide the ideal platform for such a commitment, while still leaving time for the specific revised target to be developed.

The first clear way for China to enhance its NDC is to bring forward its target year for emissions peaking. The second, which could complement the first, would be to adopt an absolute emissions control target.

This would change China's focus from merely limiting emissions growth to pursuing absolute decarbonization. Establishing an absolute emissions control target before 2030 would also concretize a revised early peaking year, facilitate the integration of emissions reductions with existing absolute pollutant controls of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, and provide a basis for allowances in the national emissions trading scheme that will begin trading in 2020.

China updating its NDC aligns with its present environmental priorities, which have advanced significantly since the current NDC was devised in 2015. To be meaningful, however, a more ambitious NDC must be matched with strategies for achieving it, which, in the case of China, will rely on integration into the 14th Five-Year Plan, which is currently under development. At the CCICED annual general meeting, Li Ganjie, the minister of Ecology and Environment, emphasized that the 14th Five-Year Plan should represent an ambitious change of step from previous plans now that China has reached its centennial goal of becoming a "moderately prosperous society" and aims to realize modernization.

There is thus a huge opportunity to realize this through aligning an enhanced NDC with ambitious targets and means of implementation in the 14th Five-Year Plan that support its achievement and set the foundation for long-term decarbonization.

Achieving this will also be a great test of how deeply the idea of an "ecological civilization" has permeated the Chinese government and also the authority of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The five-year plan development process is a huge effort involving both the State Council, ministries, and thousands of departments at all levels of local government. All of these will need to be coordinated to provide the backing that makes an enhanced NDC meaningful and achievable.

The world is increasingly looking to China for bold leadership. The next 18 months offer clear opportunities for China to assume this, provided it can align international priorities such as NDC enhancement with domestic policies, particularly the 14th Five-Year Plan. Successfully doing so would support China's existing priorities and help galvanize international climate cooperation and ambition. Missing the opportunity, on the other hand, might see the chance of ever doing so may slip away for good.

The author is a fellow with the Beijing-based Innovative Green Development Program. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Time to step up to the climate plate

(China Daily Global 07/15/2019 page13)

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