The great powers have taken big steps to fight global warming. Now attention turns to the rest of the world.
China’s unilateral commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060 took the West by surprise. If President Xi Jinping’s words can be taken at face value, the country which emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, Europe, and Japan put together is embarking on a radical program of decarbonization. Climate change politics at a global level thus shift into a new gear.
There were no doubt tactical motives behind the timing of Xi’s announcement. But to imagine that China’s strategy is a propagandistic diversion or a concession to Western diplomacy—a liberal quid pro quo for Xi’s dictatorship—is both to overestimate Western leverage and to underestimate the climate problem. It is precisely because the Communist Party regime is bent on shaping the next century that its leader takes climate change seriously. In the calculus of the regime, Yangtze river floods are, like Hong Kong rights protestors, a threat to its grip on power. The future for Beijing’s authoritarian China Dream looks far more uncertain in a world of runaway global warming.
Xi’s move may scramble Western preconceptions, but it has been obvious since the beginning of this century that China would have the decisive voice in the future of the global climate. A quarter century before it is expected to overtake the United States in terms of GDP, China surpassed it in terms of carbon emissions. China dominates all the heavily polluting industries worldwide—coal, steel, aluminum, cement. Once this could have been attributed to offshored Western production. Today, China consumes most of its heavy industrial output at home. With his decarbonization commitment, which eclipses any plausible future move that the EU or the United States might make, Xi has simply made clear where the real decision lies.