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How will COP26 affect UK-China relations?

by James Brodie
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In the first of our COP26 series, we review the background of UK-China environmental relations, and examine how the meetings offer an opportunity for British leaders to make good on their green promises and the positive examples of joint action with China that are already taking place all around the country

Tackling climate change will probably be the most important issue facing the world’s diplomatic and business communities this century. A global response is urgently needed, for according to the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), without a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global warming could reach the critical tipping point of 1.5°C above temperatures in the pre-industrial period by the early 2030s – with catastrophic consequences for the world as we know it.

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In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China aims to see its CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. President Xi reiterated the commitment earlier this year at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate, adding that China would begin phasing out its polluting coal-fired plants from 2025 and has subsequently announced an immediate end to the funding of new coal-fired plants in third countries.

At a time of geo-political tensions, there seems to be common interest in including China in international efforts to address climate change. In April 2021, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, met his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. In their joint statement, both sides vowed to intensify their cooperation in the fields of renewable energy, industrial decarbonisation, and low-carbon transportation, among others.

China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2, accounting for 30% of global emissions; more than double that of the United States. By contrast, the United Kingdom accounts for less than 1%, producing per capita emissions of 5.45 tonnes of CO2 per person compared to 7.1 tonnes for China. However, whereas the UK managed to reduce its emissions by 38% compared to 1990 levels, outpacing the 25.1% reduction across EU member states, China’s carbon dioxide output has soared by 380% in the same period.

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Britain’s impressive efforts will have limited impact without a global shift in policy – and China’s role in this is crucial, both in its own carbon reduction efforts and in its investment in green technologies and renewable energy. Already facing environmental problems of its own, such as desertification and water shortages, China also has a strong self-interest in effective global action.

EU-China cooperation on Climate Change has also deepened. In 2018, European and Chinese leaders issued a statement expressing their mutual commitment to intensify political, technical, economic, and scientific cooperation on climate change and clean energy. Both sides also signed a memorandum of cooperation on emission trading and indicated that they would align their standards for green investment.

UK-China cooperation on climate change

As the UK charts a new course outside the EU, international cooperation on climate change will be one of the main foreign policy areas where it can put the vision of ‘Global Britain’ into practice. The 2021 Integrated Review, which outlines Britain’s strategic priorities in the next decade and beyond, lists climate change and biodiversity loss as major strategic concerns and the UK’s international priority through COP26 and beyond.

The Integrated Review not only calls for more investment in domestic green technologies, such as offshore wind farms and hydrogen power projects, but also for action to help accelerate the global transition to net zero. Cooperation with other major economies, especially those which are already heavily investing in green technologies, is therefore only logical.

Here collaboration with China plays a key role. The country is already the largest market for renewable energy. Last year alone, China increased its wind energy capacity by 60%, enough to power three times the number of homes in the UK. By 2030, global offshore wind power capacities are expected to have grown sevenfold, with China accounting for 25% of the increase. The UK is expected to add the second-largest amount, adding 16%, followed by the US with 11%, according to research by Global Data.

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While there is a longstanding and fruitful collaboration between businesses and researchers in both countries, coordination at the political level provides a vital policy context for this. The UK-China joint statement on climate change – which was released during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to the UK in 2014 – is one of the earliest and most ambitious bilateral documents in this area. A year later, both governments signed an agreement for a Clean Energy Partnership, vowing to support each other during the transition to a low carbon economy.

Recent government-level meetings between the UK and China – like the 10th Economic and Financial Dialogue in 2019 – have confirmed these goals and reiterated their mutual commitment to work together at the ministerial level to enhance cooperation on key green technologies. Furthermore, both countries’ central banks, the Bank of England and People’s Bank of China, agreed to collaborate on green finance standards and regulatory frameworks for climate-friendly financing. In September, President for COP26 Alok Sharma met China’s Special Representative Xie Zhenhua in Tianjin to discuss China’s crucial role in global climate diplomacy. Both agreed that more needs to be done and that all sides should accelerate their efforts to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 °C. Finally, in October, Zhang Jianhua, the head of China’s chief energy regulator, held a video conference with Kwasi Kwarteng, UK Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to discuss both country’s cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy, offshore wind power generation and energy market reform.

While many of these initiatives were interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the increased frequency of extreme weather events like the torrential floods in Zhengzhou make the joint combat against climate change an even more pressing task. COP26 now offers an opportunity for leaders in both countries to re-join hands and enhance the positive examples of joint action that are already taking place.

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The role of business

Businesses from the UK and China will be central players in the low carbon transition, through their investment, their technologies and their services, and it’s this that CBBC’s upcoming Targeting Net Zero report aims to highlight.

KPMG, in the report’s thought-provoking introduction, draws upon recent analysis to outline what it sees as the main opportunities that will emerge for companies from what is proving a difficult and challenging transition from a fossil fuel-driven economy towards a sustainable and carbon-neutral one. They are at once plentiful and diverse, and several play into proven synergies between the UK and China.

Following the five key themes outlined at the start of the UK’s Presidency of COP26, each of the five chapter sponsors then goes on to share their own reflections on the challenges and technological advancements within their respective areas of expertise. Each chapter is then complimented with a set of four case studies, which serve to illustrate the wealth of solutions that British and Chinese firms are working on in support of our countries’ ambitious climate targets.

The entrepreneurial spirit and technical ingenuity demonstrated herein will be a major contributing factor in helping our nations reverse the destructive trends of the past in Targeting Net Zero for the future.

Click here to read CBBC’s Targeting Net Zero: The Role of UK-China Business Report

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