Out of dire straits
China and the US signal crucial cooperation to address the climate crisis
The recent agreement between China and the United States to cooperate on climate change is a very welcome development. We should recall how China-US cooperation was pivotal to the successful global negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Now, such cooperation is vital to the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement.
The climate situation is more dire than in 2015. The climate dangers continue to mount and accelerate. The Earth's average temperature has been rising by around 0.2 C per decade, but in the recent 10 to 20 years, by an even higher rate, perhaps up to 0.3 C per decade. The Earth is currently 1.2 C warmer than the pre-industrial average temperature, and could exceed the 1.5 C threshold within a few years.
The need for global action is urgent. Fortunately, most of the major economies of the world now recognize that essential fact. China, the European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the US, and others, have all recently committed to reach net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by around mid-century. China's commitment is to do so before 2060 at the latest.
I believe that the major countries will soon agree that the entire world can and should reach net-zero emissions even faster, by 2050 at the latest. There are two reasons why the agreed timeline to net-zero emissions is likely to be moved forward. The first is that the climate threats are even more dangerous than widely believed. The second is that the technological options to reach net-zero emissions are even better than widely realized.
Climate-related disasters are occurring in many forms. Hurricanes, droughts, floods, heat waves and forest fires are all becoming more intense and dangerous. Ominously, the sea level could rise by several meters as a result of the partial disintegration of the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. Such a massive sea level rise would be utterly devastating to coastal societies around the world.
At the same time, the ability to reach net-zero greenhouse gases emissions is also easier than has been supposed until recently. Technological advances will enable the world to shift decisively from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy by mid-century, and at very modest cost as a share of national income. The key is for all of the major economies to work out a clear transition pathway to zero-carbon energy.
The key to worldwide decarbonization lies in six main steps. First, all new power generation should be based on zero-carbon sources: solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, geothermal and others, and fossil-fuel-based power generation should be phased out. Second, transport should be electrified, with battery electric vehicles replacing those with internal combustion engines. Third, buildings should utilize electricity rather than fossil fuels for purposes of heating and cooking. Fourth, zero-carbon electricity should be used to produce other green fuels, such as hydrogen, for use in industry. Fifth, digital technologies such as smart grids should be deployed to conserve energy. Sixth, diets should shift toward more plant proteins and less animal proteins, for better health and to reduce the pressure on the environment.
One of the most important parts of the new agreement is the joint commitment of China and the US to "develop by COP 26 in Glasgow their respective long-term strategies aimed at net zero greenhouse gases emissions". Under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries are to submit "long-term "strategies, which are distinct from the shorter-term Nationally Determined Contributions, and should show their pathway all the way to net zero emissions.
When the Chinese and US governments work out their respective long-term strategies in the coming months, they will very likely reach two main conclusions. First, reaching net-zero emissions from the power sector will be easier than they currently expect. Second, the transition can also happen faster than they currently expect. China has committed to reach net zero by 2060. I believe that on close analysis, China's specialists will find that net zero by 2050 is both achievable and advantageous for China and for the world.
China is very well placed to make a rapid transformation to net zero, because it has strong technological and manufacturing capacities in all of the most vital areas: advanced photovoltaics, wind turbines, hydroelectric power, long-distance high-voltage transmission grids, 5G broadband, artificial intelligence systems, electric vehicles, advanced batteries, among other technologies. Moreover, under its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), China has committed added resources to technological advances in key areas, which will enable it to excel in low-cost rapid decarbonization.
Of course both China and the US face domestic challenges in shifting their respective coal-dependent regions and workforces to the advanced zero-carbon economy. Yet there is no country in the world with more experience and success than China in rapid structural changes that also support inclusive development. After all, China successfully reduced the rate of extreme poverty from 80 percent to zero between 1980 and 2020 in the midst of dramatic structural changes in urbanization and the labor market.
I am also gratified that the agreement signals the intention of the two countries to work together to support a successful COP 15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that China will host in Kunming in October. The US is not yet a signatory to the CBD. I hope that President Joe Biden will submit the CBD to the US Senate for ratification so that the US can become a full member of the treaty. Sustainable land use under the Convention on Biological Diversity is not only vital to the protection of biodiversity, but also essential to reaching net-zero emissions. Unsustainable land practices are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The shared commitment of China and the US to addressing the climate crisis should be a harbinger of active cooperation in many other areas. Both countries, and the entire world, have much to gain from cooperation, and much to lose from hostility. When China and the US work together, and bring in the rest of the world as partners, the benefits can be truly historic.
The author is an economics professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. 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.