G7 promises on climate change look flimsy without Chinese agreement

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Handy for the UK that it destroyed its own coal industry in the 1980s and has a significant offshore wind resources already up and running. In that context it’s easier for Boris Johnson to sign up to ambitious climate change targets than it is for, say Germany, which still generates significant amounts of its power from coal and which still mines significant quantities of the stuff in its eastern regions.

The US too has been putting the squeeze on coal for years, and even President Trump’s pro-mining and pro-coal initiatives have done little to arrest the decline of a once-mighty industry.

In the west, although climate change protestors might lament the slow pace of change, there is at least an acknowledgement that the problem is real and a certain amount of momentum in tackling it.

But for all the talk of targets for the end of sales of gasoline-powered cars, it remains nevertheless the case that on the current trajectory we’re going to end up with much cleaner air in a world that’s still relentlessly heating up.

Why?

Because all the climate change initiatives in the world won’t make sense unless China is also signed up to them.

If an environmental campaigning group heralds as a major victory the cancellation of a new coal-fired power plant inside the G7, they should also know that China’s building plans for new coal-fired power plants continue unabashed, and also that China finances most of the new coal-fired plants that are being built globally anyway.

In a sense, then, it’s an easy win for the G7. They can virtue signal on coal all they want, safe in the knowledge that for real change to happen, it’s China that must take the pain.

But to the degree that such things are possible amongst such disparate nations, there may be a longer term plan here. The G7 struck a broadly anti-China tone this year, and if it can line up against coal it’s conceivable it might be willing to line up against coal in China too. Or put it another way, if the world wants China to act on coal, it first has to get its own house in order. That process appears to be underway under the umbrella of a broad international consensus.

Yes, countries like China and India remain outliers in terms of coal-fired power, but they are also more susceptible to US influence. China won’t mind being isolated per se. The country has regained enough of its self-confidence to brush that aside.

But if the G7 and their allies are united against climate change, the charge will start to be levelled that any climate change that is ongoing is China’s fault. The wider world, dragging its own hesitant media behind it, has already effectively laid the blame for coronavirus at China’s door – a PR disaster that will take several decades to unravel.

How much worse would it be if charges of climate recklessness and climate catastrophe could be laide directly at China’s door?

Such a scenario will certainly help western governments sleep more easily at night. Whether it’s enough to get the Chinese to go much beyond President Xi Jinping’s vague claims about 2060 is another matter.

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