An Insider Exclusive
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs is a University Professor at Columbia University
With forest fires raging on the Pacific Coast; the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast being hammered by hurricanes and flooding; and 2020 among the warmest years on record, it’s hard to be upbeat about our climate prospects. Utterly reckless politicians like Donald “It will start getting cooler” Trump seem intent on doing us in, both by COVID-19 and climate change. Yet this week brought some very good news on climate change that could make a big difference.
Tuesday marked the start of the UN General Assembly. For the first time in history, the meeting was online, as no leaders came to UN Headquarters in New York City. Trump used his UN video appearance to parade his trademark petulance and ignorance by lashing out at China. His speech, in fact, was aimed not at China or other UN nations, but at his right-wing base.
China’s President Xi Jinping spoke soon thereafter, and pointedly made clear that China has no interest in matching the U.S. in petulance. Wisely, Xi rose to the occasion by emphasizing China’s commitment to the UN system and to global cooperation on climate change.
Xi in fact offered an important climate breakthrough, promising that China will reach “carbon neutrality” by 2060. This means that China will phase out its use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and shift to zero-carbon energy (such as wind, solar and hydro) by 2060. Any remaining use of fossil fuels, according to carbon neutrality, would require capturing the CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the fossil fuels, or by some other way to offset the emissions of CO2.
China’s new commitment is a big deal. China currently emits around 7 tons of CO2 per person each year, or around 10 billion tons each year, almost a third of the global total. The U.S. by contrast emits around 15 tons per person each year, far more than China. Yet because the U.S. population is so much smaller than China’s, the U.S. total is around 5 billion tons, roughly half of China’s total emissions.
China’s new commitment to phase out these emissions was prompted in no small part by the European Union (EU), which earlier this year valiantly adopted its own “European Green Deal” that commits the EU to phase out fossil fuels by 2050, 10 years ahead of China’s new commitment. In a leadership summit between the EU and China just a few days before the UN General Assembly, the EU leaders urged China to step forward with its own comparable commitment, and President Xi quickly obliged. Thus, we witnessed a double triumph, of diplomacy and climate sanity.
Of course, we have not yet reached safe harbor by any means. China’s new 2060 commitment should be moved forward to 2050, as with the EU. The climate science tells us that the entire world must phase out fossil fuels by 2050 in order for us to have a reasonable chance to keep global warming less than 1.5-degrees Celsius, the upper limit of prudence that the world’s governments agreed to in 2015 in the Paris Climate Agreement.
That naturally brings us to the bigger problem: the United States. President Xi has deftly exposed the oft-repeated lie of the Republican Party that climate diplomacy with China is impossible. Now the U.S. must be the next to move, to make our own national commitment alongside the EU and China.
Fortunately, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has made crystal clear that his administration would usher in a new green energy economy, with the U.S. also reaching carbon neutrality by mid-century. We are thus one vote away from the long-awaited global breakthrough on climate change.
Americans by a big majority understand that human-made climate change is real, dangerous and solvable. Americans by a big margin support the shift from fossil fuels to green energy. Now let’s vote by a similarly large margin to oust Trump and his cronies, and thereby restore global cooperation for climate safety and a science-based recovery from COVID-19.