Can China join the EU on climate change?

When US President Donald Trump announced in June last year that he would withdraw from the 2015 UN climate deal in Paris, the rest of the world scrambled to fill the void. The European Union and other major economies moved quickly to insist that they would stick with the United Nations agreement to limit global average temperature rises. The EU deserves credit for its role in both negotiating the pact and keeping it together after Trump’s announcement. But shouldn’t China be recognised too?

Climate change is expected to be a key issue at the EU’s summit with China in Beijing on July 16, where their converging environmental policies will be discussed. China has been only a recent convert to climate politics – it opposed the EU during the 2009 UN Copenhagen climate conference – but it has taken up the cause committedly. The effects of China’s new support for climate action are being felt most strongly in transport. It has moved to cut its own transport emissions, mainly in cars and trucks, through a variety of measures. For example, China – unlike the EU – has limits on CO2 emissions from trucks.

China has set zero-emission vehicle targets as it plans to leapfrog diesel and petrol and go straight to electric vehicles. Officials say sales of new energy vehicles should reach two million by 2020 and account for more than 20 percent of total vehicle production and sales by 2025. This is not just a political target: Beijing has also taken bold steps to become a world leader in green technology. This includes investing heavily in hybrid and electric vehicle systems.

China is cranking up production of electric trucks and buses and is now increasingly pushing into Europe’s mobility market. It has secured €21.7 billion of investment in the past year to manufacture electric vehicles (EV) while Europe secured only €3.2 billion, according to European carmakers’ public announcements compiled by campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E). It has done this despite producing only a third more cars than Europe does (23.5 million passenger cars manufactured in 2017 versus 17 million in Europe).

China is also moving into Europe’s carmaking heartland: Chinese firm CATL will build a battery factory in central Germany to supply the country’s auto industry through its transformation toward electric cars, thanks to a €4 billion deal with BMW. Of course, China is still the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions – 25.9% of the global total, compared to 15% for the US and 9.3% for the EU. It has a long way to go to reduce its emissions. But that also explains its ambition.

China’s bet on electric vehicles appears to be paying off. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable, but China’s bold action in cutting transport emissions reveals an environmental leadership that matches that of the EU. Their leaders will have much to talk about at their Beijing summit.