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Cooperation with China on climate change is a rough and controversial road. But we must try.

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By Neil Hirst

· 4 min read

The visit of John Kerry to China in April showed how seriously the Biden administration takes the need for cooperation with China on climate change. Both sides agreed to “cooperate in multilateral processes”.

This is not an easy road. We are entering an era of intense competition with China on energy technology and access to key materials is a growing concern. Relations between China and the West, in general, are at a low ebb. But we will have to take a pragmatic approach to cooperation with China on climate matters, recognising their claim to a share in world leadership, if we are to succeed in protecting the planet.

The most important and urgent need is for cooperation at the November climate summit in Glasgow. Indeed, the success of the Paris summit in 2015 was largely based on the coordinated support of China and the US under the Obama administration.

China has agreed in principle to work with the US and others to make Glasgow a success and has recently committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. It’s an impressive, and even astonishing, commitment bearing in mind China’s current dependence on coal and rapid rate of economic growth. However, the focus of Glasgow will be on raising national ambitions to 2030. Hopefully China will now join the US, Europe, and the UK, in making a new commitment in that period.

There are other areas that are worth considering where cooperation with China may be feasible

China now has the world’s largest economy on the basis of purchasing power parity and the second largest at current exchange rates. China is the largest energy consumer and emitter, but is also the leading investor in renewable energy. We cannot expect to engage China as a junior partner. Xi Jinping has made it clear that while China is willing to work with existing institutions of global governance, China also expects them to evolve to reflect the growing economic strength of developing nations.

China now sees itself as a leader, and not just a follower in the international low carbon revolution. China’s new commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060 will necessitate a review of its international as well as domestic energy policy. The West should at least explore whether this opens up an opportunity to forge new institutional links on climate change.

We need a genuinely global body for cooperation on energy policy and technology. The International Energy Agency, which is the main existing organisation in this field, could fill the bill. In recent years it has developed a much closer relationship with China and other major developing nations, who have become Associate Members. But the existing membership, confined to the developed countries who belong to the OECD, are still unwilling to open its doors for China and other developing nations to become full members.

The core of the low carbon transition is in energy policy. If we really want to cooperate with China, and other major developing countries on climate change, the time for such cavilling is past.

The other major area where we need to cooperate is in support for developing countries to achieve low carbon economic development and poverty relief. There is vast unmet demand for energy services in the developing world including India, Africa and Central and South East Asia which has the potential to wipe out any reduction in carbon emissions that might be achieved in the West.

China’s Belt and Road initiative is the world’s biggest government programme for international development and a large part is in energy infrastructure. The initiative has underdeveloped governance and still invests in fossil fuel projects. The West has been encouraged to participate, but largely stands aloof, although the City of London has been working with Belt and Road to develop green guidelines. Xi Jinping, speaking at President Biden’s climate summit, has recently been emphasising its green objectives.

We should offer to cooperate with China on a reformed version of Belt and Road in the energy sector. This might involve the development of a global centre for low carbon development and poverty relief to be based in Beijing. It would need to have a strong governance framework to ensure wide international participation in decision making and high environmental standards. It would need to work closely with existing international financial organisations such as the World Bank, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and China’s own Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Such an organisation could release immense government and private resources for low carbon investment in the developing world.

Such overtures to China in the energy sector will be controversial. But China is an indispensable partner in our efforts to control global warming. They at least deserve consideration.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Neil Hirst is a Senior Policy Fellow for Energy and Mitigation at the prestigious Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London. His main current activity, funded by the FCO, is a joint project with China’s Energy Research Institute on China and Global Energy Governance.

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