For a long time, cooperation has been the only answer for the EU when dealing with China and climate change. The EU views it of critical importance that China joins global efforts in addressing climate change, as it is the largest emitter by far.
The cooperation approach has been so far successful, e.g., as China signed the Paris Agreement and, later on, committed to reach net zero emissions by 2060. Progress was recently made in Glasgow as China signed the Glasgow Climate Pact which includes accelerated efforts towards the phasing down of coal. Unfortunately, however, China’s last-minute push (supported by Bolivia, South Africa and Iran) to change the language from “phase-out” to “phase-down” significantly weakened the pledge. This approach is no different from China’s announcement right before COP26 of its long-awaited Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030, which made no new pledges and delays its efforts until 2025-2030.
In a nutshell, China has never fully committed to cooperation on climate change strategies. This is understandable, especially given the difficultly of the task. China will indeed face huge challenges with its energy transition as witness recently over the past few months.
Given the urgency of the matter, the EU might need to use more of its economic leverage to achieve a more fruitful cooperation with China. The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is a good example of such an approach, which made great progress with Turkey when it finally signed the Paris Agreement, especially given the expected increase in the cost of exports to the EU.
Unfortunately, the EU might be too small to exert the same amount of economic leverage on China, which implies that that the EU might need to find other like-minded peers who also advocate for taxing carbon emissions across borders and support global carbon pricing. Only through coordinated effort may the EU be able to find enough of an economic leverage to improve its climate cooperation with China. The other economic leverage which the EU has, and for which coordination is also needed, are climate-related standards. The EU would be advisable to first agree on the standards with the US and Japan before negotiating them with China. As we stand today, there is no such thing as climate cooperation without exerting benign pressure through economic leverage.