Imperial College London

China and US announce they will ratify Paris climate deal

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United States and Chinese flag fly together in the blue sky

Imperial expert in global energy comments on the prospects for China's global leadership in climate change.

The two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, have affirmed their commitment to tackle climate change, moving towards a cleaner, less energy intensive, 'low-carbon' economies.

On the eve of the G20 summit of world leaders in Hangzhou, China, Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama announced they will be "leading by example" for the rest of the world, vowing to "unwaveringly pursue sustainable development".

The Paris Agreement, signed last December, saw 197 countries commit to limiting global warming to 2°C (and aspire to 1.5°C) by reducing the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels for energy. The treaty will only come into effect when 55 countries representing at least 55 per cent of total global greenhouse gases.

Most emissions now come from developing countries, so the future of the planet depends on the energy policies chosen by rapidly growing countries such as India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia, South Africa, as well as China, according to Neil Hirst, an expert in global energy policy at the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment, at Imperial College London.

"China's example will be influential," he says. "But to play its full part in world leadership on climate change, China, together with other major developing nations, now needs to become a full member of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and take part in energy policy debate alongside the existing developed nations."

Cleaner world

"Xi Jinping's decision to make the ratification of the Paris climate treaty a showcase for China’s G20 Presidency is a big boost for climate diplomacy. It also fits in well with the Chinese government’s domestic agenda. Nevertheless, it’s going to be a tough struggle to get China's emissions down to levels that would be consistent with limiting climate change to two degrees," according to Neil Hirst.

China's strategy has achieved the greatest relief of poverty in world history. But the price has been severe pollution of land and waterways as well as urban smog. Clean-up is now a top political priority.

– Neil Hirst

Grantham Institute, Imperial College London

In recent decades, China's prodigious growth in heavy industry and manufactured exports has been based on equally prodigious growth in coal consumption and emissions. Now China's commitment to limit its greenhouse gas emissions is part of a much wider policy change.

Hirst, who is Senior Policy Fellow at the Grantham Institute, says: "This strategy has achieved the greatest relief of poverty in world history. But the price has been severe pollution of land and waterways as well as urban smog. Clean-up is now a top political priority." 

What is more, the strategy of industrialisation no longer works as it did. Export markets are becoming saturated and other developing countries are competing with lower wages. "To continue raising living standards China needs to diversify its economy upmarket, towards higher value added products and services that also have lower carbon emissions," Hirst says. So for China, the call for a cleaner, less-polluting economy plays well domestically, as well as to an international audience.

Peak emissions

"Coal production in China has probably already peaked and the growth of carbon emissions will slow and begin to reverse in the next decade or so as the economy evolves. The target that China has set in the Paris process, that emissions will peak by 2030, looks fairly comfortable," says Hirst. But China now accounts for more than a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the government has said that it will bring the peak forward if possible. That now appears essential to meet the target of limiting global warming to two degrees and maintain economic growth.

Having cemented their cooperation on the climate treaty, China and the US should now work together to promote modernisation of the IEA and full Chinese membership

– Neil Hirst

"The government in Beijing has to be cautious about the climate targets that it sets because it faces considerable resistance, from provincial governments and large state owned enterprises, to its redirection of the economy. Some of these are still hooked on the continuing need for industrial investment to prop up the rate of economic growth and employment.

"There is already a growing problem of unemployed coal miners," Hirst warns. Although China is now the world leader in renewable energy, investment in new coal power stations also continues at a pace. "Beijing needs to keep the economy growing and cannot afford to ignore local concerns. The jury is still out on its ambitious plans to reform the state owned industries, which account for a significant amount of the emissions."

"There is no doubt about the good intentions of the Chinese government, but it faces a tough challenge in changing the environmental course of the super tanker that is the Chinese economy."

Energy agenda

The reductions in emissions that governments have pledged under the Paris climate treaty fall far short of what is needed to limit global warming to 2°C. In order to do this, analysis shows governments will need to 'ratchet up' their efforts, with realistic policies and technologies that deliver secure and affordable energy alongside reduced emissions.

"If the climate treaty is the 'top down' mechanism of climate cooperation, the IEA is the 'bottom up' organisation where governments work on specific energy strategies," explains Hirst.

"Today only the rich Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries can be full members of the IEA, a legacy of how the world was run before the rise of China and other developing nations." China has only recently become an 'Associate' of the IEA, alongside Indonesia and Thailand, but will need to become a full member of the IEA, along with other major developing nations, to play its full part in world climate leadership. 

"Having cemented their cooperation on the climate treaty, China and the US should now work together to promote modernisation of the IEA and full Chinese membership," says Hirst.

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Read a blog by Neil Hirst in which he explores further the prospect for China's global energy leadership in the IEA, "Why the world needs a more inclusive global energy agency"

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Neil Hirst

Neil Hirst
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6306
Email: n.hirst@imperial.ac.uk

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Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 5650
Email: s.levey@imperial.ac.uk

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