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#20 - The next big polluter

How China’s new climate pledge and the US elections may change the course of India’s climate diplomacy

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Lou Del Bello

Oct 01 2020

7 mins read

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Welcome back to Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia. 

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Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China - Image UN/Cia Pak

The world biggest polluter has just launched the world’s most ambitious climate drive to date. Not only does this matter for the future of our planet at the end of the century and beyond, but it radically changes the dynamics of global climate diplomacy - in short, what other countries do about climate change. 

At the UN General Assembly last week, China’s president Xi Jinping announced his plan to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, and called on all countries to cooperate and take advantage of technological and scientific advancements to realise a green industrial revolution. 

The fine print

Now carbon neutrality is an elusive term, its meaning can change radically depending on how you frame it and how you plan to deliver on the target. For example, will China accelerate its progress from now, or will it wait well after 2030, when it originally planned to peak its emissions, and race to carbon neutrality in less than three decades? For now there is little information on how it will make it happen, except that its coal addiction will be difficult to kick. But the speech itself, albeit generic, contains clues we should pay attention to. 

First, a message to the US, which under Donald Trump has reneged on its climate commitments. The golden era of cooperation that the two countries enjoyed under the Obama administration may be over, but China is powerful enough that it can set ambitious targets for itself and achieve them. The same can’t be said for the third top emitter, India. What China and the US do matters to India because aid, cooperation and trade are still key to its clean development. 

I spoke with Thomas Spencer, a fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi, who has a great Twitter thread on this.

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Thomas Spencer @ThomasASpencer

15/n In sum, China's announcement speeds up the inevitable: India will become the 'largest developing country emitter', sooner or later. This brings strategic pressure; India needs a solid case for what it can and can't do. Domestic policy and diplomacy should react.

September 23rd 2020

3 Retweets28 Likes

He explains that while China needs to decarbonise the industries and infrastructure that it has built over the past few decades, India is “much earlier in that process of urbanisation and industrialization and still has these big emission investments to make.” This comes with challenges and advantages, Spencer says. 

In some sectors such as light duty transport or state power, India has a ‘late-mover’ advantage: it can employ green technologies that weren’t there when industrialised countries were developing their economies. “And there are certain sectors which are central to the building up process, in particular the materials and energy intensive sectors like iron and steel,” Spencer says. “As your economy grows, your freight consumption really goes up as well because your economy becomes more integrated. And these are sectors where India's emissions are actually going to grow quite a lot.” 

That’s why instead of pledging a single goal that encompasses its entire economy, India should rather come up with a plan for various sectors to peak at different times, depending on their readiness. “I don't think that it is India's job to drive down the cost of the next wave of [clean] technology, in the same way that it didn't drive down the cost curve of solar, Germany did it in early 2000,” Spencer says. Steel demand, for example, is expected to grow five fold in India between now and 2050, while in China it will likely decrease. “So the question for China is how you decarbonise existing assets, while for India it is how do I reach decarbonized demand in a sector where we don't really have the technology.” 

With China embarking on aggressive decarbonisation, India is poised to become the next biggest polluter of the developing world, with all the scrutiny that comes with it. But much of its progress will depend on the ins and outs of international climate diplomacy, financing and cooperation, which will be defined for the coming years by the next US president.

Why the US elections matter

After the Covid crisis, says Rachel Cleetus, climate and energy economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, US, “there's a real concern that the [Indian] government will resort to business as usual,” a move that would reinforce fossil fuel dependency rather than break free from it. “And then we have China now with this very ambitious announcement, it's essentially trying to create a race to the top,” she says. “So if you have the big economies making this commitment and crucially investing in jobs, this is the moment where it all comes together.” 

“I think that the [election] outcome is hugely important for the future of climate cooperation, since if Biden wins he’s likely to make climate a big part of a post Trump foreign policy reset,” says Sam Geall, executive director of China Dialogue and climate diplomacy expert. “But I don't think he’d be able or want to rebuild the US-China relationship to what it was, on climate. More likely, in fact, that the initial outreach would be to other larger emitters such as India.”


Since Trump's election, he says, there has been a power vacuum, and the EU-China relationship “hasn't been able to replace that as the engine of the [Paris] agreement.”

While the former friendship between China and the US may be a thing of the past, a Biden presidency would likely renew its commitments to climate action from the start. “His foreign policy instincts, I suspect, will not differ from the emerging shift towards the ‘Indo Pacific’,” Geall says, “so I could well imagine him prioritising working with India, as well as say, Indonesia.” 

Climate change and Covid-19 remind us that the biggest threats to humanity cross borders. “This is no longer a zero sum game where it's about one country winning and another country losing,” Cleetus says. “This is about all of us winning if the costs [of green technologies] come down and can be scaled up rapidly everywhere in the world.” An ‘if’ that may sound more or much less promising on November 4.

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