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Recap: Getting to Zero with Jeff Sachs and Ma Jun, 3.4.21

Recap: Getting to Zero with Jeff Sachs and Ma Jun, 3.4.21

China and the U.S. are the two greatest emitters of carbon, so their environmental and economic policies have the power to either save or destroy the planet. On March 4, 2021, China Institute hosted top climate thinkers for the first episode of Getting to Zero: Can the U.S. and China Save the Planet?. Hear from Jeffrey Sachs, an economist who runs Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Environmental Policy and Affairs in Beijing, and Alvin Lin, energy expert at the NRDC in Beijing, who shared insights on what the two nations can do to ensure we get to zero net greenhouse emissions.

Speaker Bios:

Ma Jun (MJ) is one of China’s best known environmental activists. He founded one of China’s most dynamic environmental NGOs, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), which is committed to promoting transparency around pollution issues in China. IPE developed the China Water Pollution Map, the first public database of water pollution information in China. Ma wrote China’s Water Crisis, a landmark book published in 1999 that brought the consequences of unfettered development to public attention.

Jeffrey D. Sachs (JS) is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He is President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development. Sachs has authored and edited numerous books, including three New York Times bestsellers: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). His latest book is The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions (2020).

Moderator’s Bio:

Alvin Lin (AL) is China Climate and Energy Policy Director in the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Beijing office, focusing on analysis and policy advocacy around China’s climate and clean energy policies. His work covers a broad range of issues, including the environmental and health impacts of coal consumption, energy efficiency and renewable energy, the climate negotiations, HFCs, and air pollution policies and laws.

Dinda Elliott (DE) is Senior Vice President of Programs at China Institute.

Full Video of Getting to Zero, Episode 1:

Selected Program Quotes:

AL: The solutions to global issues are ones we have to work together on. We did make progress last year addressing climate change. Xi Jingping pledged that China would seek to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and be at net zero by 2060. It would increase its non-fossil share by 2030 from 20% to 25% and nearly double its solar capacity. Those are very large targets. In the US we have a new President. The kind of targets under discussion in the U.S. would reflect an ambitious decrease, in line with the E.U. This is where we need to go if we are going to get to zero in the next few decades.

AL to MJ: How are local governments in China looking at carbon peaking and neutrality?

MJ: [Xi Jingping’s] pledge was to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

China has achieved some progress, for example our coal production expansion had been brought to a halt as part of China’s clean air plan. …But the economic slowdown due to the trade war and the hit from the pandemic, all of this has made the local regions want to go back to the old ways to jumpstart their economy. So, we have seen a rebound of…coal consumption and a rise in carbon emissions… I would say that this pledge has come at a critical moment especially as China is reviewing its five-year plan. In an emergency way, climate targets have to be integrated into these plans. In the past several months in a flurry, we have seen different ministries, regulators, and agencies try to craft their own policy in response, and then local regions, and then followed by the largest SOE’s in coal, power, oil and chemical industries. This has created a whole new dynamic. People bill this as a political priority so they have to take a political stance.

The solid action plans have yet to come. Everyone, more or less, got caught by surprise by this 2030 and 2060 commitment, and the learning curve is quite steep and a lot of capacity building and preparations have to be made.

AL to JS: How did you view the 2030 and 2060 announcement?

JS: We are really far along in danger and we see the climate shocks everywhere. This is unbelievable delay. When President Xi made the announcement at the U.N. General Assembly, we had Trump as President. He was a [reckless climate leader]. We were in the grips of anti-science. When Xi made the statement, what a great statement! Because the U.S. was going in the opposite direction and China was showing real leadership. Even before Biden came in, we had commitments from the E.U., Japan, the U.K. to get to zero by 2050. We are in a much better situation now in terms of global understanding of this issue. The real goal is that by when we have the Glasgow top 26 of the U.N. framework on Climate Change, every part of the world should be zero by 2050. China- which is so good at this stuff- should be zero by 2050 not 2060. I’d like to push them even harder, to 2050! They are setting the pace on wind turbine technology, long distance transmission of renewable technology, electric cars…President Xi’s announcement was extremely important.

The U.S. and China need to cooperate, because there is so much to do together. I am worried about the U.S. because our politicians are not in a cooperative mood. I hope that we will recognize this common purpose and mission and speed the process because we are at the end of the story of safety and we’ve got to move faster!

AL: What are the most important things the two countries can do to accelerate this race to zero?

JS: Our economies need to go to electric as quickly as possible. We need to get to electric for buildings- we need to heat with electric. We need to get to electric for industries – like metallurgy- as quickly as possible. So pretty much all scenarios say ‘decarbonize the power supply, the electricity generation, electrify vehicles and buildings, and part of the industry and for the parts you can’t, switch to non-carbon fuels or green fuels…’ So the technology pathways are pretty good. The basic transformation is known. So stop building coal-fired power plants. We don’t need any more! The U.S. has basically stopped. I believe we should say that by 2030/2035, don’t try to sell an internal combustion engine car in the marketplace. Most of the big producers are saying that. We need a clear regulation. China is quite good at this regulatory approach and these technologies. China is going for carbon pricing and taxes, too, but I would rather just go to regulation.

MJ: We need a transformation of our energy mix, and transportation. All this is necessary. The investment is going to be tremendous: over $130 trillion RMB, for us to achieve carbon neutrality. The central government can only invest a limited part of that and so local government has to take action and companies have to be willing to increase their spending.

In China, it is important to eliminate policy uncertainties. Xi’s commitment can do this- he reiterated it several times after the U.N. meeting. There is no return. This is a clear message to be sent in China. We are partnering with agencies and professional researchers to develop a Carbon Neutrality Index for provinces and cities. Regulatory requirement is [also] very important.

AL: What are the ways that [China and the U.S.] can work together?

JS: They better work together rather than face conflicts. It is a pretty full agenda and it has gotten bad in the last couple years because the U.S. has taken a rhetorical and trade attack on China and is trying to bring down big Chinese companies like Huawei. We should not have a view that it is us versus China, but that we will compete on a market basis and by WTO rules. We won’t try to bankrupt a major company abroad. The U.S. is in a state of anguish based on Chinese technology success: China got to 5G first.

I would recommend proper dialogue at a serious and high level with mutual dialogue about climate issues, trade issues, international finance issues…

MJ: I very much agree with Professor Sachs. It is so important for the two largest economies and two largest emitters to share this global responsibility on this issue. President Biden brings a lot of hope on this issue, he is progressive on the carbon issue. Before, proactive collaboration between the two countries paved the way for the Paris Agreement.

AL: Do you see China’s carbon pollution data helping banks change financial decisions?

MJ: We started collecting data from 2006 and were able to report only say 2,000 violations, after 10 years of index making and assessment of 120 cities we have witnessed historic progress, that violation record is approaching 2 million! Everyday, the online monitoring is made public and we can compile 3 million emissions data and based on that we have created a dynamic environmental credit tool. For the first time, this has been adopted by major Chinese banks to go through 70,000 companies [who applied for help] to screen them. Now it is time to extend that into the carbon side.

DE: We Americans do not understand how much the [Chinese] government is pushing this greening of the economy.

JS: China is the biggest emitter of C02, and so Americans think, oh, they’re bad, they’re doing this. But it’s important for people to understand that on a per-capita basis, China’s number is only half what the U.S. is [15 tons per person in the U.S. vs. 7 tons in China]. But of course, China has four times the population. So, both of us have to clean up. It isn’t a matter of pointing fingers…

We are more secure with China being successful, for sure. We should not be stopping the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of technology, even stopping Chinese students from studying in American universities…this is a terrible idea. Stop this zero-sum mentality, but it is much worse on the American side right now.

MJ: If each side can go more open and transparent and data driven, there is a chance for us to achieve that healthy competition.

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