EU-China Relations: Invoking A Low-Carbon Future From Past Cooperation

Closer European-Chinese ties can emulate the past success of the ancient Silk Road, this time for the exchange of low-carbon goods, ideas, policies and technologies, to inspire global civilisation towards more resilient development with regards to both the climate and the economy.

The recent summit in Brussels of leaders from the European Union and China cemented political and economic cooperation, which can be a force for good.

China is burnishing its growing global clout with new investment funds destined for infrastructure projects across the developing world, including its support for the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its Silk Road infrastructure fund, and its participation in the BRICS New Development Bank, alongside Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

Closer ties with the EU can ensure that these new funds help drive low-carbon development.

China is certain that a low-carbon path is in its own interest, as the country's leadership responds to the air pollution concerns of its citizens. Burning coal is not only a major source of carbon emissions, but also of air pollution, which is responsible for about 7 million premature deaths annually worldwide.

China's new commitment to a low-carbon path is underlined by its pledge for a forthcoming global climate agreement, which all countries have committed to sign in Paris at the end of this year.

China's pledge, unveiled last month by Prime Minsiter Li Keqiang at a press conference in Paris, includes plans to cut the carbon intensity of its economy by 60-65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to peak its carbon emissions in the same year. These targets would require China to build and install nearly 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon power generation over the next 15 years, equivalent to almost the entire U.S. power capacity to date.

The EU has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. Along with China's latest pledge, these are cautious, initial pledges, and they can both go further to ensure a climate-secure future.

Climate change is already linked with more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. It is also gradually unravelling sea level rise, which may be impossible to stop, much less to reverse. The EU and China together account for nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions, and their cooperation can make an enormous difference to an effective, global response.

They can go further in Paris, by jointly supporting a global goal for zero carbon emissions by the end of the century, coupled with regular reviews of interim climate action. That would give a clearer signal for investors to put their money in low-carbon energy and transport infrastructure, which, in turn, will cut the cost of reducing carbon emissions.

Together, the EU and China can also export this low carbon economic signal to the rest of the world.

One area in which the EU can work with China is in deepening global adoption of carbon markets, which the EU has long led. China has expressed a desire to join forces by planning to launch its own nationwide cap and trade scheme in 2016.

Another area of cooperation is the development of low-carbon technologies. In Europe, engineering firms such as Vestas, ABB, Siemens and Schneider Electric are at the forefront of renewable energy, electric vehicle, smart grid and efficiency technologies. These technologies will see continued rapid growth in both the EU and China, as their benefits for productivity, energy security, human health and the climate are increasingly valued in a carbon constrained global economy. Between China and the EU, climate friendly-technology and product trade are increasingly the mainstream.

Beyond a climate agreement in Paris, these two economic giants can deepen and broaden low-carbon development through China's latest financial commitment to infrastructure investment across Eurasia.

EU countries, including Britain, France and Germany were among the first few major industrialised nations signing up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing last week at its official launch, recalling their historical eagerness to invest and trade in Asian market. Their enthusiasm also makes abundant economic sense. It is in Europe's interest to support the world's second-biggest economy in its transition to a cleaner model of development.

China's new infrastructure funds can help plug a global gap in investment in water, transport and energy. Critically, they can help the developing world build a new kind of infrastructure, including renewable energy and mass transit in more compact cities, which is cleaner, healthier and more energy efficient. The timing is vital, to make the right choices now, as developing countries continue a rapid pace of urbanisation which will lock in new infrastructure for decades to come.

The EU and China can work together to ensure that forging low-carbon infrastructure is a core mission of the newly formed AIIB. That would achieve stronger, more ambitious climate action, and closer trade ties between the EU and China.

The low-carbon transition that China is embarking upon is urgently needed across the developing world. The China-led new infrastructure funds have great potential to make investments where they are most needed, and to re-set priorities, from growth at any cost, to more sustainable growth, which prioritises technology for greater productivity, as well as better health and a cleaner environment.