G20 Climate Commitments and China’s One Belt One Road

Yves here. It is enormously frustrating to read posts like this.

On the one hand, the author is correct to say that Paris Accord handwaving is far from enough to address climate change, that serious and coordinated action needs to take place. And that is an extremely tall order, since we already have attained dangerous CO2 levels as a result of advanced economies reaching their current level of development.

On the other hand, emerging economies want their citizens to have first world middle class lifestyles…which would require the resources of a large integral multiple of what the Earth actually has. And the US has a big role in stoking these desires, since our exports of Hollywood movies showing supposedly middle class people typically better housed than even generally overhoused Americans actually are isn’t helpful. Nothing like misplaced international status envy.

The idea that we can somehow have an environmentally responsible Silk Road, now called One Belt One Road, is barmy. China is seeking to construct a massive transportation system and new supply chains. A major objective is to secure the resources needed to move Chinese lifestyles closer to Western levels. That aim in and of itself is destructive. There’s no way to pretend otherwise.

The only hope of steering out of our climate change tailspin is radical energy conservation efforts, pursued with the intensity of war mobilization. Nothing even remotely like that is happening. Pundits like Wolff are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

By Guntram Wolff, the Director of Bruegel. His research focuses on the European economy and governance, on fiscal and monetary policy and global finance. Originally published at Bruegel

The G20 is just about holding together in difficult times, but the world’s leading economies need to make good on their climate promises. Major projects such as China’s One Belt One Road initiative and the G20 Compact for Africa must incorporate sustainability criteria, or it will be impossible to meet the Paris goals.

After Hamburg’s recent G20 meeting, what will remain beyond bitter memories of shameful rioting? There was a remarkable show of unity on trade, Africa, women’s empowerment and many other issues. But the G20 was not united on climate change. The United States refused to sign a declaration re-confirming the commitment of the other 19 countries that they would continue to support the Paris agreement. Yet, the US did announce a desire to “lower emissions” while supporting energy security and helping other countries to “use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently”.

This division in the declaration marks a substantial divergence in declared policy approaches. But even more important than declarations will be actions. The US pledge to help other countries, mostly less-developed countries that are not part of the G20, to use fossil fuels more cleanly should not become a meaningless declaration.

All too often, countries that are in need of basic infrastructure investment, access to power, transport and clean water still turn to cheaper and more readily available 20th century technologies. This means fossil fuels. And every coal power plant built now will be in use for 40 years, contributing to climate change. As urbanisation progresses, it will be of fundamental importance to climate change whether the new cities will have a low or a high carbon footprint. Will their transport system be based on fossil fuel cars, and will they be built in a way requiring major air conditioning or relying on green cooling? These choices will be of central importance for whether the Paris climate agreement goals can be met.

If it wants to achieve the Paris climate goals, the G20 needs to show leadership in helping developing countries to build low carbon infrastructure as they develop. In particular, the role that China plays will be fundamental. China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative is probably the largest infrastructure project in the world right now. Its aim is to connect countries across the Asian continent and also Africa and Europe. The infrastructure needs and urbanisation tendencies in the region will be substantial, so incorporating a sustainability element in the “One Belt One Road” initiative would be an important concrete step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU and China could usefully collaborate on this important sustainability dimension of “One Belt One Road”. Europe has advanced technology that can be easily deployed. European banks could also be interested in becoming co-financers of green investments. Joint leadership on climate change from China and the EU could be a game changer for this large Chinese investment initiative.

The G20 has also agreed on a “Compact for Africa”, and a sustainability element should also be built into the help that will be granted to private firms investing in African countries. Africa, with its fast growing population, is one of the continents where the future of climate change will be decided. Again, the primary goal should be to deploy renewable energies as infrastructure gets developed. And again, G20 countries need to put words into action. Yet, there may be countries preferring to largely deploy fossil fuels. Ideally, G20 members should encourage these countries to use the most efficient technologies and US support in this regard may be useful.

On the whole, the G20 faces the same challenge as all the party members to the Paris agreement: how to turn bold promises into concrete action. And the need to act is nowhere more urgent that on climate change. Prioritising sustainability in the massive infrastructure investments that the Chinese “One Belt One Road” and the “Compact for Africa” may trigger will be of utmost importance to achieve our climate goals.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One comment

  1. Bruce S. Post

    Your introductory comments reminded me of two things:

    1. In March, 1979, I was a member of a national policy panel studying U.S.-Chinese relations. It was shortly after President Carter normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China. We traveled to Beijing and stayed for about one week. There was very little motorized traffic. What there was was primarily buses, some taxies, government cars and some trucks. Bicycles were the dominant form of wheeled transportation. Coincidentally, one of our “fellow travelers” (pun intended), had been with Nixon during his 1972 trip to China. He observed that, in 1979, there was comparatively so much more traffic and noise; by contrast, “In 1972,” he said, “you mostly heard the sound of rubber bicycle tires on the pavement.” During our panel’s deliberations I stated, “Heaven help us if one billion Chinese adopt the American lifestyle.” Now, just look at Beijing today, and you, too, might appeal to Heaven.

    2. A few years earlier, I was at a prayer breakfast at the Washington Hilton attended by President Ford. I sat at a table with a diplomat from the Embassy of Sri Lanka, and we got talking about the environment. I mentioned that nations like his should not emulate the American way of life and economy. He resented my comments, saying, “Now that you have yours you want to deprive us of acquiring the same kind of life.” Touché!!!

    Frankly, we, the supposedly enlightened “First World” folks, have to embrace a downwardly mobile trajectory or else ….

Comments are closed.