Others must now follow China-US climate action, or be left in the dust

Li Shuo and Tom Baxter say the deal to ratify the Paris agreement at the G20 is a game changer. However, it is only a starting point, especially with no timetable yet agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 6:26pm

Hangzhou’s ( 杭州 ) three days of high-level political meetings sent out big signals on global climate action. The historic Sino-US announcement to formally ratify the Paris climate deal and the G20’s discussions on the Paris accord have hugely increased the likelihood that the agreement will come into force this year, far earlier than expected.

This momentum must continue. However, the G20 also showed us how much more action the world’s largest economies must take. The lack of progress, yet again, on a timetable for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies is a case in point.

To avert disaster, China and India must make fossil fuels a thing of the past

Bringing the Paris agreement into force early will be a fantastic first step towards shaping a new global politics of climate action – and will also offer a comforting safety net against a Donald Trump presidency in the US, as no party is allowed to withdraw for four years after the deal comes into force.

However, it is far from the finale. As the reality of climate change begins, undeniably, to hit the world, climate action can no longer be a side conversation. Rather, it must be brought to the centre stage of global politics.

Hong Kong must seize the opportunity to cut fossil fuel use in favour of renewable energy

The enormous significance of China and the US’ joint announcement to commit to join the Paris agreement cannot be overstated. Not only do the two countries make up almost 40 per cent of global emissions, their ability to shape the tides of global politics makes the announcement a game changer. The pressure is now on for other nations to follow suit, or be left in the dust.

Further pressure will come later this month as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convenes governments in conjunction with the General Assembly to accelerate the ratification process. The momentum is mounting and it seems we can now expect the Paris agreement to be in force by the end of this year, something which seemed unimaginable just six months ago.

The G20 was far from all good news for the environment, however. Despite the peer review conducted by the US and China on each other’s fossil fuel subsidy policies – an unprecedented show of trust and transparency – the summit did not manage to secure the essential support of other important countries, such as India, on addressing fossil fuel policies.

The [subsidy] policy seems especially dumb when one considers the progress renewable energy has been showing across the world

As a result, the long-promised but oft-postponed timeline for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies has once again been delayed.

Fossil fuel subsidies see up to US$1 trillion thrown into supporting polluting and economically unsustainable fuels every year. And it is not just environmentalists who criticise this astounding waste of money. Before the G20 meeting, three of the world’s leading insurance companies called for governments to rid the world of the counterproductive subsidies by 2020, while one recent article bluntly labelled the subsidies “the world’s dumbest policy”.

The policy seems especially dumb when one considers the progress renewable energy has been showing across the world over the past few years. In May, sunny Portugal powered itself for four whole days on renewable energy. Blustery Scotland followed suit last month by powering itself for one day on wind power alone. The G20 host, meanwhile, has seen an incredibly rapid growth in wind and solar technology. China’s increase in power generation from wind and solar in 2015 alone was larger than Denmark’s entire electricity demand. Such a rapid rate of growth meant that China was able to meet all new electricity demand with wind and solar in 2015.

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Across the world, fossil fuel subsidies are holding back the enormous potential of renewables. Phasing out the subsidies is an essential step in the just transition to renewables that the world needs.

Fossil fuel subsidies are fundamentally incompatible with the Paris climate agreement. The lack of progress on phasing out such subsidies shows clearly that Paris will be the starting point, not the finale of the ambitious climate action the world needs.

Fossil fuel subsidies are holding back the enormous potential of renewables

Across the world, extreme weather is becoming more frequent and violent – recent research links the increasing intensity of Asia’s typhoons, which Hangzhou’s residents know well, to climate change.

Notably, climate change is hitting some of the world’s most vulnerable communities hardest. The residents of low-lying tropical Pacific islands sleep within inches of rising sea levels, while communities in Russia’s far east have been hit by outbreaks of anthrax once locked in the frozen land.

Facing this reality, we cannot wait another decade for real action to be taken against fossil fuels; don’t subsidise them, keep them in the ground.

The Paris agreement is the first step. But as the realities of global warming hit the world, climate action must be brought to the very forefront of global politics.

Li Shuo is a senior climate policy adviser with Greenpeace East Asia, where Tom Baxter is an international communications officer