Chris Skidmore MP was Science Minister 2018-2020 and Energy Minister in 2019. He is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center of Government at Harvard Kennedy School.
Two years have passed since the UK became the first G7 country to legislate for “Net Zero”. Since then, over 70 per cent of the world’s surface has made a commitment to neutralise their carbon emissions by 2050. Still disagreements persist as to how exactly Net Zero can be achieved, or even how it should be defined.
With the target likely to come under increasing focus in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, now less than 100 days away, already research is demonstrating that companies’ “carbon offsetting” strategies are not only inadequate, requiring a land mass five times the size of India to plant trees, they may also end up causing more harm than good – as the carbon emitted from the wildfires burning in US forests especially planted to sequester carbon now becomes further part of the problem rather than the solution.
With these debates raging alongside this summer’s wildfires, it is clear an effective strategy to achieve Net Zero remains in a state of flux. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to take up a research post as a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, looking in detail at how we can not only achieve Net Zero most effectively, but also to question whether the target is the right one, and what mitigating factors need to be put in place to account for unknowable events in the future— in the next 29 years, global change, war, natural disaster, could all sweep Net Zero off the map.
We need not only a strategy, but an insurance policy too. For every policy, policymakers must also have due regard to the fact that for every action, there will be reaction, just one of the plethora of unintended consequences that have to be guarded against. Having signed Net Zero into law as then Energy Minister back in 2019, I’m acutely aware that unless the idea of transformation and change works with local communities, the risk of a backlash to any green policies could end up causing delay and dither.
For the UK’s own Net Zero strategy, already we are witnessing the beginning of a transformation towards a green economy, with enormous potential to further regenerate post-industrial communities as a result- as has been highlighted by several contributors in ConHome’s series on Net Zero. But we all know that even if the UK achieves it’s own Net Zero ambitions, it will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also. And it will be in Asia that Net Zero will either succeed or be broken altogether.
One just has to look at the numbers to realise that without China and India onboard, the ability to tackle climate change will become a losing battle. With an estimated 70 per cent of global carbon emissions coming from cities, over 52 per cent of the world’s urban greenhouse emissions come from just 25 cities.
23 of those cities are all based inside the People’s Republic of China, with the worst being Handan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Dalian and Beijing, all with greenhouse gas emissions higher than 130 megatons of CO₂ equivalent. According to IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality organisation which works with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, and Greenpeace, 148 out of the top 150 most polluted cities in 2020 are in Asia.
Alok Shama is rightly using his position as COP26 President to call for a global end to coal, yet Chinese and Indian buy-in to this programme will be essential for its success. While pledging in 2016 during the Paris Agreement to reach peach CO₂ emissions by 2030, China built more coal power plants in 2020 than the entire world retired.
Already China has nearly four times as many coal power plants than the next largest country, India. In 2020 alone, China’s coal usage accounted for 76 per cent of the global new coal capacity, adding 38.4 gigawatts directly from new coal plants. Moving forward China is currently building an additional 88.1 gigawatts of power from coal, with another 158.7 gigawatts of power from coal power plants having already been proposed to the central government.
These are the simple facts that anyone who wishes to reduce global carbon emissions faces. The geopolitical reality facing any Net Zero strategy is that China’s growth will continue to define the 21st century. There is no choice but to work together with China to achieve joint successful outcomes to reduce carbon emissions.
Playing the blame game on carbon emissions is ultimately pointless as it achieves nothing. It is not a weakness either to recognise that we all have a shared future on the earth, and we must build partnerships that share how we can deliver transformations that can prevent drastic climate change before it is too late.
If China fails to reduce its greenhouse gases, we all fail. If ever there was a need for a “Nixon in China” moment, we need COP26 to deliver it if Net Zero has any chance of success.