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The China Factor

Over the past eight years, the climate outlook has darkened, and the Paris climate agreement has come to seem like a pipe dream. But China is demonstrating that sustainable development is still possible, both as a matter of domestic policy and in international negotiations.

LONDON – One of the most memorable lines in cinema, Rick Blaine’s farewell to Ilsa Lund in Casablanca – “We’ll always have Paris” – evokes both nostalgia and a sense of longing for unattainable ends. It has thus become an ideal refrain within international climate governance circles. Everyone remembers that high point in late 2015, when 192 countries adopted the Paris climate agreement and committed to keeping average global temperatures below 2° Celsius (and preferably within 1.5°C) of pre-industrial levels.

But in the intervening years, the climate outlook has darkened, and the Paris agreement has come to seem like a pipe dream. The science makes clear that economic growth based on fossil fuels cannot continue if we want to keep the 1.5°C target alive. According to the International Energy Agency, country-level emissions-reduction targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), still fall far short of what is needed, and “most pledges are not yet underpinned by near-term policies and measures.”

Nonetheless, China, the world’s second-largest economy, has steadily increased its targets and implemented the policies needed to reach them. In its first NDC, submitted in 2016, it pledged to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Then, ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), it submitted an updated NDC in which it committed to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.