The article provides a comprehensive analysis of the prospects and impediments that can come in the way of EU-China collaboration over the crucial matter of climate change. The article begins with exploring how carbon reduction is a shared goal of both states but the means to the goal vary between the EU and China. The article further inspects hindrances and probable significance of the discussed collaborative action.
Image by Dorothe from Pixabay
The ever-intensifying climate crisis has brought the world to a critical juncture where immediate and collective action towards addressing it is necessary. China and the European Union (EU) are among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), with the former emitting almost 15 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2020, which is three times higher than the latter (United Nations Environment Programme, 2022). Given this, any of their efforts towards decarbonisation would probably determine the planet’s future.
Climate change is now placed at the core of the EU-China 21st-century collaboration. For the past several years, they have not only launched numerous green initiatives such as the European Green Deal (EGD) and the BRI International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) but also reiterated their ambitions to mitigate the global climate crisis (Geng & Lo, 2022; Oertel et al., 2020). This was evident in 2020 when the European Commission and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and 2060, respectively (Craw, 2020). Despite their differences in political and economic systems, the two polities have emerged as key partners in global climate governance (Altun & Ergenc, 2023; Da Zhu, 2022).
In this regard, this article will revisit the EU-China climate collaboration and identify potential obstacles to their future cooperation, such as the growing economic competition between the two polities. The article is structured as follows. After analysing the EU’s and China’s visions and approaches to achieving their climate goals, the article then evaluates how the EU-China climate collaboration can be strengthened. The third part outlines potential challenges that may impede their future cooperation before concluding that lively collaboration between the two polities is indispensable for global efforts to combat the climate crisis in the coming decades.
Evaluating the EU’s and China’s strategies towards a low-carbon future: Shared interests, yet divergent approaches
The EU’s and China's climate policies are profoundly grounded in their respective political systems, which pose unique social and economic obstacles in their efforts towards decarbonisation. The EU benefits from the supranational policymaking structure that allows it to strategically formulate a comprehensive climate policy for the long term. However, the differing perspectives of its member states on climate policy could sometimes compromise the effectiveness of enforcement (Da Zhu, 2022; Oertel et al., 2020). The Chinese political system, which is characterised by a one-party rule and a series of five-year plans (FYP), has been effective in achieving stability and a particular objective. Nevertheless, the challenge of balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability has proven to be a difficult obstacle to overcome (Da Zhu, 2022).
The EU has been playing a leading role in addressing global climate change and developing the international climate agenda for the past decade. The EU announced the landmark plan called the European Green Deal in 2019 to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050 (Oertel et al., 2020). Moreover, the EU further increased its 2030 GHG emission reduction targets from 55 per cent in 2021 to 57 per cent in 2022 (Altun & Ergenc, 2023). To facilitate the EU’s climate ambitions, the EU initiated the Emissions Trading System (ETS) in 2005 to serve as a role model for international emissions trading worldwide (Da Zhu, 2022). In addition, the EU launched the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) as a market-based solution to preclude the risk of carbon leakage from countries outside of Europe which may possess less rigorous climate policies (Froggatt & Quiggins, 2021). The EU recently introduced the ambitious ‘Fit for 55’ package in 2021 to accelerate emissions reduction in myriad sectors covered in the ETS. This initiative also reinvigorated the Renewable Energy Directive, with a commitment to raise the share of renewable energy sources to 40 per cent in final energy consumption by 2030 (European Parliament, 2022). Thus far, the EU has maintained an outstanding commitment to global climate mitigation, with the enforcement of policies and initiatives to move Europe towards carbon neutrality.
Similarly, it has been evident that China has become the forerunner in dealing with the climate crisis for the past several years. China’s vision and strategy for decarbonisation are encapsulated in its project to build an “ecological civilisation”, which was first introduced in 2007 at the Communist Party’s 17th Congress (Craw, 2020). Under this project, China has made significant efforts to promote a green transformation at both national and global levels. President Xi Jinping announced in 2020 that China will strive to become carbon neutral by 2060 (Froggatt & Quiggins, 2021). From the 12th FYP to the current 14th FYP, China has demonstrated that GHG emissions reduction and sustainable development are among the top priorities of national development, with a proposed reduction target of over 65 per cent by 2030, compared to the 2005 level (von Lucke, 2023). What is more, China introduced BRIGC in 2017 to alleviate the environmental issues resulting from the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and foster synergy among partners towards environmental sustainability (Kevin & Lo, 2022). The most recent plan is the mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategy published in 2021, which serves as China’s strategic vision for 2060. This plan goes beyond emissions reduction to include the likes of the blue economy and nature-based solutions to the climate crisis (Liu & You, 2021).
The above comparison demonstrates that although the EU and China differ in their decarbonisation approaches, they both aim to promote global climate change mitigation and sustainable development. The year 2020 witnessed both parties declaring their plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 (for the EU) and 2060 (for China). Both the EU and China raised their 2030 targets in their respective Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement in 2022, emphasising their unwavering efforts to climate action. As a result, the shared goal of heading towards decarbonisation between the two top emitters has formed the backbone for their synergistic efforts in a wide range of areas.
The EU-China Strategic Agenda for Cooperation published in 2013 has laid the solid foundation for their strategic climate partnership (Da Zhu, 2022). Since then, both polities have been working together in numerous climate-related areas comprising the development of renewable energy, green technology, circular economy, sustainable urban development ecological conservation, and biodiversity (Altun & Ergenc, 2023; Luo et al., 2021; Sattich et al., 2021). For example, both China and the EU have sought to advance circular economy to achieve the goals of resource efficiency and sustainable development. Their strategic partnership in this field was established by the Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy (MoU) in 2018. Under this MoU, for instance, they agreed to cooperate on strategic exchanges on eco-design and eco-labelling management systems, as well as sharing of best practices related to a circular economy in key areas such as waste and plastic (Luo et al., 2021). Furthermore, the EU and China signed the EU-China Urbanisation Partnership to co-develop smart, green, and inclusive cities. One of the highlighted projects is the Europe-China Eco-Cities Link (EC-Link) completed in 2020. The success of this project could be seen in Qingdao City where the EC-Link helped facilitate the improvement of buildings to be more energy efficient (Craw, 2020). In effect, these EU-China synergies have helped both parties to reduce emissions, reinforce resource and energy efficiency, and strengthen environmental sustainability, which would contribute to the alleviation of the climate crisis worldwide. More illustrations of these joint efforts will attend in the following section.
Bringing two giants to the fore: Forging the EU-China climate collaboration in a warming world
The EU-China climate collaboration is central to global efforts to combat the climate crisis nowadays. Its prominence has been acknowledged by key figures of the two giants. In 2019, Wang Yi, the then-Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, contended that the collaboration between China and the EU is essential for combating the climate crisis. Likewise, the Ambassador of the Delegation of the European Union to China, Nicholas Chapuis, highlighted in 2020 that both parties could make synergistic efforts to address the climate crisis (Zhang & Gong, 2020).
To date, the EU-China climate collaboration has taken many forms. These involve the establishment of a high-level dialogue mechanism such as the High-Level Dialogue on Environment and Climate, and joint initiatives in the fields of climate change mitigation, renewable energy, circular economy, biodiversity, and sustainable finance (Liu et al., 2019; Zhang & Gong, 2020). The examples of these synergies are as follow. The EU’s success in enforcing the ETS has provided a concrete basis for China to develop its own carbon trading system, as seen in the EU-China ETS project (Craw, 2020). In terms of green finance, the People’s Bank of China and the European Commission agreed to collaborate on providing necessary finance for the energy transition in 2019 (Anthony et al., 2021). Moreover, both parties established the Co-Funding Mechanism (CDM) in 2014, which is part of the EU’s Horizon 2020, to finance joint climate-related research projects. 630 million euros were pledged by the EU and China to invest in collaborative research projects between 2016 and 2020 (Sattich et al., 2021).
With regards to renewable energy, the EU and China agreed on numerous projects to promote renewable energy development in both polities. For example, after the EU and China initiated the China-EU Near Zero Emission Coal project in 2006 to jointly advance carbon capture and storage technology, both parties established the Europe-China Clean Energy Centre in 2010 aimed at promoting renewable energy development through innovation collaboration and technical assistance (Liu et al., 2019). This energy collaboration was further reinforced in 2018 when both parties signed the roadmap for the period up until 2020 and the subsequent EU-China Energy Cooperation Platform in 2019 (Sattich et al., 2021). Moreover, their interdependence is manifested through trade as well. China has become a significant collaborator of the EU in low-carbon energy technology, with the EU importing the most from China and exporting the fourth most to China in 2015 (Sattich et al., 2021). During this time, China established itself as the leading supplier of energy storage, solar PV, solar thermal, and wind power. The EU is also among the principal importers of China's critical minerals, such as rare earths as seen in the fact that the EU's reliance on China’s export of rare earths accounts for over 90 per cent (Matthews, 2022).
The success stories of the EU-China climate collaboration are evident in several joint projects. A good illustration of this is the EU-China ETS from 2014 to 2017. The project enabled the EU to exchange its strategies with the seven pilot emissions trading areas in China, facilitating the development of a market, monitoring, reporting, verification, and certification mechanisms that facilitate the implementation of China’s carbon trading system (Zhang & Gong, 2020). This project provided both parties with a dialogue on emissions trading and allowed the EU to help develop China’s ETS (Oertel et al., 2021). Moreover, the project benefitted China in terms of capacity building. Zhang and Gong (2020) indicate that joint seminars and training sessions have been hosted in several provinces and cities in China. Subsequently, the successful first phase of the EU-China ETS project paved the way for the second phase (2017-2020). A total figure of funding of over 10 million euros was mobilised into the project during this period. As a result, this collaborative project has brought about positive development to the international carbon trading system and led to a relative reduction of GHG emissions worldwide.
Furthermore, as China has been adopting more stringent regulations on vehicle emissions, the country recently enforced the new emissions standard for heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) called China VI which is modelled on the Euro VI and the Euro V standards used in the EU member countries (International Council on Clean Transportation, 2018). This law set limits on the amount of pollutants that can be emitted by HDVs, including nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM), and other perilous pollutants. Starting from the 1st of July, all new HDVs sold in China must comply with the China VI standard (International Council on Clean Transportation, 2018). Using the EU legislation as a model for the country’s law on vehicle emissions, China has taken a crucial step towards minimising the nation’s carbon footprints and reinforcing environmental sustainability. Consequently, this would not only help facilitate China’s ambition to become carbon neutral but also contribute to a more comprehensive relationship with the EU on climate change mitigation and global sustainable development.
As has been demonstrated above, the EU and China have a long history of collaboration on a wide range of climate-related topics, moving together towards a low-carbon future. Their successful joint projects emphasise the notion that the two giants can work together in mitigating the climate crisis and steering sustainable development globally. Yet, their synergy might be impacted by some challenges resulting from the intensification of both parties’ climate ambitions for years to come.
Although recent years have demonstrated lively EU-China cooperation on global climate mitigation, several challenges would potentially disrupt it.
The most pressing challenge centres around growing economic competition in the renewable energy sector (Liu et al., 2019; Sattich et al., 2021). As mentioned earlier, China has become dominant in the global solar and wind energy markets, and its capacity and competitiveness in the climate-related sectors have expanded exponentially over the past few years (Liu et al., 2019). This rising Chinese competitiveness in the global market has sometimes resulted in unintended confrontations with the EU, for instance, the trade friction over solar panels in 2013 (Craw, 2020). The EU accused China of dumping its solar panels on the European markets at prices below their fair value, which led to the EU imposing anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations on China’s solar panel imports. Although the friction over solar panels was settled in 2017, their conflict over bilateral trade continues to arise, which can be seen in the wind segment (Sattich et al., 2021).
Another challenge is the EU’s green dependency on China. This underlines a growing concern over the EU’s reliance on China’s resources and technologies that are crucial for its green transition (Oertel et al., 2020; Sattich et al., 2021). Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a reduction of the EU’s reliance on Russian natural gas and an increase in investment in renewable energy and green technology, it has resulted in a shift towards reliance on Chinese critical raw materials (Bourgery-Gonse, 2023). For example, the EU imports over ninety per cent of rare earths from China (Matthews, 2022). Hence, any disruption to the supply of them to the EU could put the EU’s green ambitions at stake. Consequently, the EU’s unveiled the Critical Raw Materials Regulation on the 16th of March this year to minimise its dependence on China’s critical raw materials (Bourgery-Gonse, 2023). This EU’s green dependency could hinder future EU-China collaboration as China may weaponise it for political objectives, as seen in China’s halt of rare earth deliveries to Japan in 2010 during the Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial dispute.
In essence, this challenge suggests that the dynamic of EU-China collaboration on climate change seems impossible to be separated from the wider geopolitical and geoeconomic realities between the two polities (Froggatt & Quiggin, 2021; Luo et al., 2021). Against this backdrop, it is still undeniable that the cooperation between China and the EU, the two world’s largest emitters, will remain quintessential for the world to move toward a low-carbon future in the coming years.
As the global temperature continues to rise, the synergy between the EU and China in addressing climate change becomes a vital driving force to a more sustainable future. Although economic competition and geopolitical tensions exist in their relations, both parties have demonstrated a growing willingness to cooperate to further advance the international climate agenda. Looking to the future, their lively partnership could not only inspire countries worldwide to head towards decarbonisation in the coming decade but also determine if the Paris Agreement’s goals could be reached.
 one GtCO2e is equal to one billion tonnes of Carbon dioxide (United Nations Environmental Programme, 2022).
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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