Global climate summit: US sets emissions target for 2030; China offers no new commitments

Mark Magnier
·7-min read

Leaders from around the world called on Thursday for cooperation to reduce greenhouse gases towards an eventual goal of net-zero carbon emissions in a bid to tamp down a rapidly warming planet.

Addressing 40 leaders from six continents, summit host US President Joe Biden cited the need to balance costs and responsibilities, while Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored the role of developing countries in sustainable development.

And European leaders called for greater use of innovative financing and disruptive green technologies as the global economy recovers.

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In a bid to spur other major polluters to take more ambitious steps, and signal that the US is keen to reclaim its climate leadership role, Biden pledged that the US would cut greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030.

US President Joe Biden speaks during climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on Thursday in Washington. Photo: AFP
US President Joe Biden speaks during climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on Thursday in Washington. Photo: AFP

“This is a moment of peril but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities,” he said in a short speech to world leaders. “We really have no choice. We have to get this done.”

Biden’s commitment compares with a pledge during the Barack Obama administration to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Biden on Wednesday also urged countries to draw on their political capital to come up with meaningful emission-reduction commitments. But the payoff, he added, will be new jobs, industries and technologies.

Washington’s hosting of the summit on Earth Day, and Biden’s commitment to increase financial aid for developing countries that curb emissions, comes after the US signed back on to the Paris Agreement that former president Donald Trump pulled out of. That lapse allowed China to bolster its status as a global climate leader.

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Speaking from Beijing, Xi cited the importance of sound environmental policies for development, social equity and justice.

“We should protect nature and preserve the environment, like we protect our eyes,” he said, adding that developing nations were crucial to global progress. “We must be committed to a people-centred approach.”

The Chinese president also pledged to “strictly control” coal-fired power plants in China’s current five-year plan and “phase it down” over the following five years.

These and other steps by China – including efforts to build a green Belt and Road Initiative, China’s signature infrastructure programme – “requires extraordinary hard efforts from China”, he added.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes part in the virtual international climate summit with US President Joe Biden (not pictured) on Thursday. Photo: Action Press via ZUMA Press/TNS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes part in the virtual international climate summit with US President Joe Biden (not pictured) on Thursday. Photo: Action Press via ZUMA Press/TNS

European leaders, meanwhile, offered some of the day’s more forceful and detailed commitments as German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on nations to view the post-pandemic economic recovery as an opportunity to invest in renewables and reshape their economies.

Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted the European Union’s agreement on Wednesday to target cutting net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

Macron followed with calls – echoed by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen – to recognise the crucial role of green financing in paying for and providing incentives for altered behaviour.

“If we don’t set a price for carbon, there will be no transition,” he said, adding: “Let’s move more quickly on our cooperation on innovation and disruptive technologies, which will enable us to rise to the challenge, and drive down our costs.”

Biden’s climate pledge is less ambitious than the EU’s target and falls below a coming UK goal for a 78 per cent reduction by 2035 from 1990 levels.

China’s climate change journey

Japan and Canada each offered new pledges while major emitters India – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke after Xi – and China did not offer new commitments.

Li Shuo, senior adviser for Greenpeace in Beijing, described Xi’s latest pledge as “underwhelming”.

“More ambitious actions are needed,” Li said. “The domestic conditions for faster emission reduction [are] becoming mature. It is in China’s self interest to announce and implement further plans.”

But in a press conference after the summit, Chinese officials defended Xi’s lack of concrete new pledges saying that climate change should not be used as a “geopolitical tool”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during the virtual climate summit. Photo: Kyodo
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during the virtual climate summit. Photo: Kyodo

“We are at a different development stage than the US and Europe,” said Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change, adding that China’s progress toward carbon neutrality was faster than US and European plans despite “immense difficulties” in restructuring its economy.

Xie said Beijing and Washington have resumed their climate dialogue, adding that a joint working group on climate change may be created soon even as both countries agreed to unveil their respective plans before November.

The 40 heads of state taking part in the virtual conference represented countries that account for over 80 per cent of the global economy.

The summit’s first hours also featured some of the world’s poorer nations already forced to weather the harsh realities of climate change.

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Leaders from countries like Bhutan and the Marshall Islands warned in stark, detailed terms how a warming climate has already begun to upend life with floods, fires and droughts.

“Over half of Africa’s countries are predicted to experience climate-driven conflict,” said Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

The environment represents one of the few issues on which Beijing and Washington have found common ground as the economic giants face off over defence, technology, trade, culture and a range of other issues.

China and the US, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, agreed last week to cooperate to curb climate change with “urgency” after US special envoy for climate John Kerry met his Chinese counterpart Xie in Shanghai.

“There are many issues on which we don’t all see eye to eye,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, referring to the global community. “This is not one of them.”

China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, followed by the United States, and together the two powers pump out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that are warming the planet’s atmosphere.

European leaders welcomed Washington’s return to a climate leadership role.

“I’m delighted to see that the United States is back,” said Merkel. “There can no doubt about the world needing your contribution if we really want to fulfil our ambitions goals.”

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But the US political flip-flop also has made leaders wary that a new US president in 2024 could reverse policy again. In response, the Biden administration has argued that market forces will soon give energy efficiency and cleaner fuels irreversible momentum.

Thursday’s speeches were replete with sweeping language and lofty goals. But the real test will come when various nations commit to – or balk at – detailed targets that impinge on vested interests and upend economies.

The United Nations is expected to hold talks in Glasgow, Scotland in November where some 200 governments will be asked to spell out what each is willing to do.

French President Emmanuel Macron listens to US President Joe Biden speaks during a climate summit video conference, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France on Thursday. Photo: AP
French President Emmanuel Macron listens to US President Joe Biden speaks during a climate summit video conference, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France on Thursday. Photo: AP

Beyond speeches, this week’s two-day gathering includes sessions on climate financing, innovation, and opportunities for economic growth.

While international summits generally include bilateral meetings on the periphery, this summit will not, US officials said speaking on background, because the “technical challenge” posed by a virtual forum.

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Biden has been in no hurry to sit down with Xi Jinping as he pursues a strategy of conferring with allies and partners similarly frustrated with Beijing in hopes of adopting a more united front on various economic, security and technology issues.

Congressional Republicans have expressed concern that cooperation with Beijing on climate issues could weaken the US hand in its negotiations with Beijing involving other concerns, including human rights, chest thumping in the South China Sea and the role of state-owned firms in the economy.

Last year, Beijing announced that it aimed to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2060, targets Xi repeated on Thursday. In March, the Communist Party pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 18 per cent in its next five-year plan, matching its goal over the previous five years.

US officials have expressed hope that China – which continues to build and finance coal-fired power plants – can strengthen its environmental targets, but China has pushed back, citing its status as a developing country.

Additional reporting by Jacob Fromer, Owen Churchill, Zhen Liu and Catherine Wong

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