In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week, delivered remotely by video link, Chinese President Xi Jinping focused on the impacts of COVID-19 and the importance of a sustainable economic recovery, setting goals to peak China’s CO2 emissions before 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060.
“Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of Nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection, and exploiting resources without restoration,” he said.
As extraordinary as this pace of emissions reduction seems, according to United Nations climate reports it is necessary – at least 45 percent reduction globally by 2030 – for any possibility of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
But China’s meteoric economic rise was, and continues to be, fueled by extraordinary resource extraction and exploitation. China now uses more concrete in a few years than the United States did in the entire century leading up to it, and China now emits nearly twice the amount of CO2 as the United States each year, though it emits far less per capita.
When China’s economy appears strong, it has been happy to project itself as a climate leader, even while funding projects like coal plants through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese provinces looking to boost their economic recovery after COVID-19 have earmarked more than three times as much development funding for fossil fuel projects as they have for “green” investments in renewable energy, electrification, and battery storage. China similarly relied on traditional carbon-intensive investments in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008-09, so even if Xi’s pledge is meant genuinely now (though it is a pledge that it will fall chiefly on his successors to follow through on), it could easily be reversed the next time that China’s economic numbers falter.
The United States’ national security establishment is hardening its view of the relationship with China. Traditional security concerns over China’s threats toward Taiwan, its militarization in the South China Sea, and general military buildup motivate the United States to pursue new military capabilities and at least some degree of economic decoupling or redundancy.
But advocates for global action to address climate change argue that the threat of climate change effects are so great and require coordinated action between major emitting countries, especially China and the United States, that it supersedes the more immediate security concerns that motivate the desire for decoupling and other manifestations of “great power competition.”
Climate change may not entirely displace the military and strategic competition between the United States and China, and almost certainly not in the near term, but both are facing increasing costs due to climate change that could lead to limited cooperation on one level while competition persists fiercely on others.
China faces massive population dislocation due to climate change as its interior becomes hotter and more arid. Elsewhere in China, torrential rains are already leading to uncontrollable flooding along the Yangtze River, killing hundreds and causing economic havoc to a country still recovering from COVID-19.
The United States’ West Coast, especially California, has sustained record-breaking fires this year, following several years that saw record-breaking fires of their own. Climate models suggest that they will only get worse.
Xi’s rhetoric and China’s “green diplomacy” may be largely intended to soften its international image, harmed by the perception that China failed to contain COVID-19 before spreading across the world and by the brashness of its aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy.” But with China being responsible for nearly a third of global CO2 emissions means that the rest of the world will be substantially better off from any reductions Beijing does make, even if only to stave off the worst environmental consequences within its own borders.