As the fastest-growing economy and largest emitter of CO2, China has huge potential to help the global community limit the world's temperature rise to 1.5C – or to push this out of our collective reach.
"As we know from so many reports that have come out about emissions growth and reductions, COP26 is realistically not going to guarantee that we're on track for 1.5," Christiana Figueres says in one of this week's Outrage + Optimism episodes, Ramping Up for COP26!.
"What we can expect, and it's still a stretch frankly but doable with a lot of work and a lot of political flexibility from many heads of state, is to keep 1.5 alive" – Christiana Figueres, Ramping Up for COP26!
This week, China submitted its updated plan for climate action. The plan (known as its nationally determined contribution) includes no new targets, still suggesting the country's goal is to peak emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060. Campaigners and climate commentators are urging China to bring forward the peaking date to 2025, which would be transformational to the global agenda.
Achieving climate goals sits alongside many international tensions, particularly between the world's two largest emitters, the United States and China. In fact, the two countries' special envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, both veterans of negotiations and the key brokers of China-US cooperation during the Paris Agreement process, have been meeting in the UK ahead of the COP26 discussions in Glasgow.
In our latest episode, We Need to Talk About China and Climate With Peggy Liu + Kevin Rudd, Tom Rivett-Carnac reflects, "When Christiana and I were at the UN, we were supported so much by the careful diplomacy between the US and China, creating the famous bilateral deal in 2014 that moved us through the issues of common but differentiated responsibility. And that really was a major part of the momentum that led us through the Paris Agreement." A lot will rest on the diplomatic skills of these special envoys during COP26.
So where does all of this leave us now?
Peggy Liu, a leading catalyst of a greener China, and Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and President of the Asia Society, share insights on how best to engage with China to help accelerate the world towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Despite the volatility of geopolitics in recent years, both agree from very different vantage points that there are reasons to be optimistic.
"If I separate out the sound and fury of the relationship from core climate change components," Kevin Rudd says, "I think literally in the last month or so, some greater grounds for optimism have emerged after John Kerry's second visit to China and his encouragement of President Biden to have a long telephone call with Xi Jinping, which then happened ... I think more political space was created to deal with the inherent complexities of the climate change agenda."
Meanwhile Peggy Liu reiterates the need for countries to work together to achieve effective climate action as demanded by science. "China can help the world go green," she says.
"But we need to find a geopolitically palatable way for us to collaborate and for all citizens around the world to be stakeholders, shareholders, beneficiaries of this transition" – Peggy Liu, We Need to Talk About China and Climate
Engaging with all theories of change and all actors is a vital element of the journey towards ensuring we keep alive the potential to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C.
"In the climate movement we can sometimes get stuck between different theories of change," Tom Rivett-Carnac says in Ramping Up for COP26!. "We can either say we're sort of calling for radical transformation outside the system or we're working with the actors inside the system. And at worst, those can appear to be at odds with each other."
"There is a role for everybody," Tom continues. "Working with the system, working with the key players, working with the governments, the corporations, shouting from the rooftops, calling for transformation. We all need to see each other as allies on a journey towards system change in which we all have unique and indisputable roles."