Skip to main content

Tomorrow’s world

Is China really going to go green?

Patrick Zimmermann/Getty Images

By every standard, President Biden’s Earth Day climate change summit was “a remarkable success”, says Jeffrey Sachs on CNN. Not only did Sleepy Joe get big climate pledges from old friends such as Britain, Japan and Canada, he brought China, Brazil, Russia – and America – back to the table. Boris Johnson made a new commitment to cut CO2 emissions by a striking 78% by 2035, Biden has vowed to halve America’s output by 2030 and Xi Jinping says China will scale back coal use after 2025. Cynics may scoff that these are “pie in the sky” targets, but for the first time governments are “doing their technical homework” — and realising that decarbonising energy grids is “practical and achievable”.

Sorry to burst your bubble, says Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday. But this kind of guff could turn Britain into a “Third World” country. Who cares if we’re closing coal stations when “China’s coal-fired power generation is more than 10 times bigger than Britain’s entire electricity output”? India is also a greedy consumer of coal. Both make “airy promises” about stopping, but as long as they carry on, “our efforts make as much difference as trying to empty the Atlantic with a teaspoon”. It is “sheer deluded vanity” to think the rest of the world sees us as an example. Few now care what we do, let alone copy us.

Talk of a glut of “green jobs” doesn’t add up, either, says Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg. Yes, Biden and Johnson must talk like this to give the cause a “political chance”. But the electric vehicle boom in the next 15 years will encourage automated manufacturing, not more boots on the factory floor. Besides, India and China will not switch to carbon-neutral technologies if they’re expensive to run. You want technology that creates hardly any jobs, so consumers aren’t paying through the nose for labour costs. That’s hard to sell to voters, but it’s something economists have a duty to flag.

It’s a mistake to write off China, says Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman. The rising superpower is responsible for a third of all global greenhouse gas emissions (twice as much as the US, the next largest emitter) and about half of all coal burnt. But it has every incentive to deliver. Air pollution in China “is a rallying point for dissent”, and even a 2C global temperature rise would put much of central Shanghai underwater. Record floods last summer affected almost 70 million people and caused at least $29bn of damage. What’s more, 70% of China’s coal-power capacity costs more to run than renewable equivalents – a report last week found that switching to renewables could save the country $1.6 trillion over 20 years. China may drag its heels to extract political capital, but we aren’t worlds apart.