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Leading against climate change, a sign of China’s global ambitions

Ella Whitehurst | China Fellow

This September, for the first time, China announced its climate policies to the United Nations General Assembly. Xi Jinping pledged that China will have passed peak carbon emissions by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060.

With China being responsible for around 28 per cent of global carbon emissions in 2018, the country’s importance to the world’s response to climate change cannot be overestimated. Should China be genuine in meeting its self-imposed deadlines, it has the potential to become the global leader in the pursuit of lower emissions.

Considering current geopolitical environments, Xi’s timing is certainly clever and could be representative of a political future in which changes emerge from an increasingly more assertive China. The European Union has been putting pressure on China to match the climate goals set by many European countries, and by doing so Xi has aligned himself with Europe while creating a stark contrast with the United States (US).

China, as a developing country, is now taking steps that put it ahead of the developed US, which has not only been slow in implementing emission reduction policies, but under Trump has sought policies which reverse progress and increase emissions. Coupled with the US’s abandonment of multilateral treaties and organisations such as the Paris accord, this allows China to assume the mantle of world leadership and authority in this regard. If a President Biden wants to match Xi’s objectives, he will have to face the current world leader in clean energy production while facing domestic political chaos. Quick, decisive actions will be needed for the US to catch up, which will prove difficult in a Congress where the Senate is equally divided and reliant upon party loyalty and Vice-President Harris to break tied votes.

These goals are a win-win situation for Beijing. Firstly, they provide an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to (partially) redeem their international reputation and divert criticism from ongoing human rights issues. Secondly, by moving ahead of the US, China will be in a better position to dominate clean energy export industries and reduce their future dependency on energy imports.

Many other developed countries, including Australia, will now also be put under more pressure to set carbon emission targets. For Australia, China is our largest trading partner, where 80 per cent of our iron ore exports are to China. It is important for Australia to realise the potential severity of this situation and open up to the possibility of developing green energy industries. With our copious amounts of space and sunlight, we would be well suited to establishing ourselves as an important provider of green energy for China.

Of course, it is also hard to overestimate the sheer monumentality of bringing China to net-zero. A report published in late 2019 by the Energy Transmission Commission and Rocky Mountain Institute outlined a possible pathway that would enable China to become carbon neutral without major economic setbacks. Although feasible, the task requires a total upheaval of the Chinese economy. Not only will energy production have to be doubled, but thermal energy production will also have to be reduced to 7 per cent of total energy production, down from 70 per cent in 2019; and this is only for power generation. China needs to completely transition all fossil fuel industries, including transport and construction, to run completely on green energy. With the world’s largest population and construction industry, this will be no mean feat.

There will also be challenges in managing policy outcomes and funding. The large variety in socioeconomic environments within China means that blanket policies for the whole country are inadvisable. It is likely that regional governments will be allowed to implement specific changes according to their respective economies. However, this decentralisation will make it harder for Beijing to ensure that national goals are still being addressed. For watching international audiences, all eyes will be on the new five-year plan to be released early 2021, which is anticipated to outline China’s political and economic pathways to carbon neutrality.

Nonetheless, as ambitious and vague as Xi’s promises initially appeared, the geopolitical and economic advantages are numerous. Not only do these targets play to Beijing’s advantage politically in the short-term, but they also offer economic rewards should China remain dominate in the global development of green technology and energy exports.

China has made it clear that it will wait for no one and has got the world waiting to see if Xi will deliver as promised. Even if he only achieves partial success, the benefit will also come from being viewed as leading climate policies. Climate change is fast becoming a marker for global leadership, and Xi has cleverly advanced China in the race for 21st-century global leadership. It is another wake up call for Australia, and other small to mid-sized powers, to recalibrate to a world where there is again not just one superpower; and to anticipate changes to flow from an increasingly technologically sophisticated China.

Ella Whitehurst is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs


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