China and the EU in Climate Geopolitics

From the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement, international gatherings are becoming more frequent. By cooperating on the climate agenda and the transition towards cleaner energy, there is no doubt that China and the EU are key actors in setting the path towards a global greener future. The main question is: how?

The 2019, 2021 and 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the last COP26 Summit in Glasgow all emphasize the need to keep global temperatures from increasing by 1.5°C. The aim states that the “long-term global goal to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”, which will not be feasible under the current consumption trends. At present, all dimensions of daily life are already severely impacted by global warming, only to increase exponentially if the global response remains too weak. As climate change is the main challenge of the century, it should therefore be tackled, regardless of geopolitical events and tensions at stake. 

From 31 October to 13 November 2021, the 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was held in Glasgow, of which saw world leaders reach an agreement addressing climate change, and set the path to reduce global green-house gas (GHG) emissions and attain carbon neutrality. The agreement aims to encourage nations to shift towards more sustainable methods of energy production and work to preserve the environment. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement most notably refers to tackling climate change through “mitigation, adaptation and finance”, of which were further developed in the Glasgow conclusions. Despite this, many obstacles remain: debate surrounding energy security and management is still ongoing, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine, and opinions diverge regarding how countries are to work towards reaching carbon neutrality. The cooperation between global players and their willingness to duly implement the needed measures and policies also remain uncertain. 

Accordingly, since Donald Trump strongly rejected the US’ role in climate leadership, the EU and China have assumed a greater role in setting the global environmental dynamic. This EIAS Op-ed will reflect on the EU’s and China’s respective positions on the climate emergency, for long described by a large scientific consensus. Moreover, it will address the existing divisions, and where they can cooperate on environmental and economic adaptations whilst pursuing national and regional agendas.

A Strategic Partnership in Tackling Climate Change

Overall, EU countries have been responsible for approximately 18 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions produced since the industrial revolution began, in comparison to China which is producing around 30% of global carbon emissions. With weather changes and rising global temperatures, climate change awareness has been on the rise in both political and public circles. This was demonstrated on an international panel, where “around 69% of respondents stated that they consider climate change to be an extremely or very serious problem”, and has been further illustrated by the success of Adam McKay’s movie “Don’t Look Up”, the numerous “Fridays For Future” protests worldwide, and the work provided by Youth4Climate. As two highly economically interdependent actors, accounting for a large proportion of the world’s population – 448 million people in the EU and 1,411 million in China –, China and the EU highly contribute to global innovation, especially with regard to “green” technology. However, in fulfilling the terms of the COP26 agreement, and thus effectively limiting climate change, EU-China cooperation needs to be based on the transition away from fossil fuels, whilst taking into account the devastating impacts of global warming: “accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, […] accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while […] recognizing the need for support towards a just transition”. Hence, when disagreements arise, such as in defining “green” technology and in energy-related matters, effective in-depth discussions should take place to better align their approaches

The very nature of climate change is that its effects reach beyond the confines of national borders, therefore requiring multilateralism and unity. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine reflect these core challenges. While they are often presented in opposition to climate action, these crises should be addressed in a comprehensive and multilateral approach by political leaders, given they are indeed deeply interrelated. The EU member states have historically been at the forefront of climate policy initiatives, with environmental considerations intertwined with the EU’s development policies and legislation. Article 3 of the Treaty on the EU (TEU) for instance underlines the need for a “high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment”. The EU is on the road to uphold their climate promises resulting from the “20-20-20” package and aiming to reduce GHG emissions, increase the share of renewable energy, and improve overall energy efficiency.

On the other hand, with the world’s largest carbon footprint, China welcomes international cooperation, as well as any additional assistance and support in accomplishing their energy transition towards sustainable resources and carbon neutrality. While Chinese citizens have demonstrated their support for environmentally-friendly investments and actions, they remain rather reluctant to pay the costs of resilience. During the general debate of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), held in September 2021, President Xi Jinping echoed this trend by announcing the goal of achieving “carbon neutrality” by 2060 – ten years after the 2050 objective fixed in the EU. The Chinese initiative was warmly welcomed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had previously urged China to adopt concrete measures and actions on climate and energy transition. 

The 23rd EU-China Summit was held virtually at the beginning of April 2022 and attended by both Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, Presidents respectively of the European Council and Commission. Its main focus was on seeking common ground regarding the war in Ukraine, and bridging the deepening waters between them. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and given the central role which energy plays in the war between Russia and Ukraine, they also tackled “the state of bilateral relations and areas of shared interest such as climate change, biodiversity and health, as well as ways to ensure a more balanced and reciprocal trade relationship between China and Europe”. Despite the ongoing crises, fighting climate change, preserving biodiversity and implementing better regulations at the international level were still included in the Summit’s agenda and discussed.

Cooperation versus Competition: Conflicting Agendas

When promoting investments in sustainable development, three key aspects must be taken into account: the environmental impact, socio-ethical factors, and the economic variables, for instance the greening of the international financial system. In 2016 during their G20 presidency, China launched the Sustainable Finance Working Group and demonstrated leadership abilities in a greener domestic system. Germany has also been promoting climate response as a top priority for the G7. In this sense, China and the EU are coordinating on taxonomies within the International Platform on Sustainable Finance (IPSF) through the Common Ground Taxonomy. This instrument favors shared criteria for sustainable financial markets. Similarly, the EU and China are working together to address energy supply challenges and transfers of technology, developing a balanced partnership based on common grounds.

Yet, key obstacles may limit the extent of their partnership. The EU-China relationship is primarily deeply grounded in climate geopolitics, intertwining economics and trade, security and technology, as well as agriculture and transportation. Given this, Brussels and Beijing are thus gradually developing a rhetoric of competition. Moreover, issues surrounding conflicts between national and global interests came to the forefront during the COP26 Summit. While referring to carbon emissions, China and India protested against the use of the term “phase out”, lobbying to replace it with “phase down”. The latter led to loud criticisms from the international community and demonstrated that China’s national interests are reflected in their foreign policies: it being “much more about China’s internal preferences than about the[ir] relationship [with] the US, EU or UK”

Another core issue in the EU-China relationship is the burden of sharing environmental costs. The conclusions of the World Leaders Summit in Glasgow require “developed country Parties to urgently and significantly scale up their provision of climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for adaptation so as to respond to the needs of developing country Parties”. The developing world views countries’ equal participation in climate transition as unfair and rather promotes the alternative concept of “differentiated responsibilities”. Developed countries are deemed to be responsible in helping them acquire the financial and technological means required to move away from fossil fuels and to fundamentally adapt their economic systems. This position is supported by approximately 130 countries, among which include heavily polluting economies such as India, Brazil and South Africa. Yet on a similar note, the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), a part of the broader European Green Deal, has also been criticized by these “Global South” countries, as well as China, as going against their interests. In combining climate mitigation and World Trade Organization (WTO) principles, this mechanism aims at a minimum “55% net greenhouse gas emissions reduction target” compared to 1990 by 2030.

Working Together for a Safer Planet?

“Environmental diplomacy” is defined as “the art of negotiating a shared way forward or a settlement to a dispute based on environmental issues that transcend countries and even continents and require international cooperation to solve”. By implementing climate policies at the domestic level and providing a solid legal framework in reducing carbon emissions, the EU is making strides towards a cleaner continent and demonstrating leading abilities in climate governance and diplomacy. Yet, the main challenge remains surrounding the diversification of their energy resources. To face any dependency in the geopolitical tensions with Russia, investments into renewables and hydrogen would enable more environmentally-friendly practices, with new measures lately proposed by the European Commission to further aid their implementation. Moreover, new partnerships could benefit the EU’s objectives and ambitions. In this sense, Southeast Asian countries would constitute great EU allies for they are highly vulnerable to climate change and global warming. On the other side, Beijing is pursuing the “Made in China 2025” strategy by investing into the production of electric cars, solar and wind energy. Despite President Xi Jinping’s absence in Glasgow, international dialogue and joint climate action appears to be the only way to effectively address the growing repercussions of climate change. 

The EU and China also collaborate on institutional projects and practices directed towards a greener, sustainable and resilient future. The EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation was indeed adopted to facilitate exchanges of views in, inter alia, climate and biodiversity matters, while the EU-China Environment Project established between 2018 and 2021 was built to promote common standards and integration in environmental governance. The main drivers for cooperation have been, on the one hand, the Environment Policy Dialogue (EPD) implemented in 2003, and on the other hand, the Bilateral Coordination Mechanism (BCM) implemented in 2009, dealing with Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG). In addition to the usual bilateral summits, several other tools were elaborated such as the China-Europe Water Platform (CEWP) or the High-Level Trade and Economic Dialogue (HED). Therefore, they were able to forge multiple fora of discussions in order to duly negotiate better environmental, economic and financial practices favoring both the planet and its inhabitants.

Overall, EU-China bilateral relations are thus envisaged to improve the international response to the ecological crises. By aiming to reach carbon neutrality through environmentally-friendly methods of production, they seem set to make their economies more responsible, reduce their national footprint, and become credible partners on the international scene. Yet despite this, the world needs more ambitious plans and deeper cooperation between these key actors, as well as other potential change-makers, including clear targets and paths thereto. In doing so, climate agreements would need to further implement legally binding criteria, of which involves both the public and private sectors, as well as the media, for the population to access better information and clearer explanations on the matter. In particular, the EU will have to focus on sustainable supply chains using low-carbon emissions technologies and develop new standards for de facto “green” economic systems. The EU Global Gateway initiative is another opportunity to promote cleaner infrastructures and relations, implementing “sustainable and trusted connections that work for people and the planet”.

However, given the latest state of EU-China relations and the tensions brought by the war in Ukraine, one must question the way forward and their main drivers, as well as consider how China will join the EU in leading the international community to reduce global carbon emissions. Negotiations require mutual trust to implement a shared vision with further financial criteria and trade regulations, sustainable transportation and clean energy, as well as a deepened strategic cooperation on industry and technological transfers. Greater research partnerships in environmental studies, climate change and resilience are also of high importance. Despite their differences, now is clearly the time for action and cooperation.

Author: Baptiste Dupont, EIAS Junior Researcher

For further reading: The EU, China and Climate Action: Time to “Turn Up the Heat” on Climate Cooperation

Photo Credits: givingcompass