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Race for the Green Leadership: The Momentum of International Cooperation

US-hosting Leaders Summit on Climate held on 22 and 23 April, 2021 provided an opportunity for participants to demonstrate their renewed commitments to climate action. US set an emissions target of a 50-52% reduction below 2005 levels in 2030, marking significant step-up from Obama administration’s target of a 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels in 2025. Japan announced a new emission target of a 46% reduction below 2013 levels by 2030, a significant acceleration from its existing 26% reduction goal. Brazil committed to achieve a net zero by 2050. UK set a new target of a 78% reduction below 1990 levels by 2035, scaling up the target from previous target of a 68% by 2030. EU committed a 55% reduction below 1990 levels by 2030 from a 40% reduction set at the previous commitment.

Together with new wave of carbon neutral declaration seen in second half of 2020 in East Asia, China by 2060, Japan and South Korea by 2050, the world has witnessed significant acceleration of climate action just around half a year. Although “green race” must be welcome for the global sustainable development, the question may arise over what made these political decisions happen and if such decision could be achievable.

To answer these questions, it should be noteworthy that the public opinions have consistently called for stronger actions to combat the climate change despite the current emergency caused by Covid-19. Global survey conducted late 2020 by United Nations Development Programme shows 64% of people in 50 counties believe that climate change is a global emergency. Furthermore, 59% said that the world should do everything necessary and emergently in response. In the UK, the country co-chairing upcoming COP26, 62% want stronger action on climate change, while only 9 per cent do not, according to European Council on Foreign Relations’ survey. Among three world highest emitters of carbon dioxide(CO2); China, the US and the EU, European Investment Bank’s survey indicates that 57% of Europeans say that the economic recovery must take the climate emergency into account and 73% of Chinese people support green recovery as a priority, while Americans are more divided: about half of Americans support a green recovery (49%), while a slight majority (51%) believe that the economy must be stimulated by any means.

Technology developments alongside cost reductions of green technologies support the reality of political decisions on climate targets. One analysis suggests that, costs of solar PV energy will decrease by 50%, while onshore and offshore wind energy costs will fall by 25% and 50%, respectively between 2020 and 2030. The technologies for energy storage, a key technology to reinforce the disadvantage of variable renewable energy, has also shown progress. There are choices of large-scale battery system commercially available although the deployment requires additional investments. Hydrogen has been getting widely recognized as a game-changer enabling clean energy storage at scale, which can be used in a wide range of scene including chemical or iron and steel industries, and fuel for transportation or power generation. Japan has been investing in this field for a long time including cross-border supply chain pilot projects with Australia and with Brunei. The EU also strengthened its efforts to create new hydrogen supply chain by forming European Clean Hydrogen Alliance bringing together industry, national and local public authorities, civil society and other stakeholders. US Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association drew a road map where it envisions Hydrogen would generate $750 billion per year in revenue and 3.4 million jobs by 2050. Likewise major economies such as China, Germany and UK, has been strengthening their hydrogen efforts as one of key green strategies. Taking into account the trajectory of technology developments and cost reductions seen in the recent history, one newly published research provides encouraging evidence that further drastic transition scenarios could be achievable at economically reasonable costs and without undermining the future economic growth.

The momentum of international cooperation has been reinvigorated among large economies since US Biden administration clearly showed its intention to take up the leadership role on the climate action. A lot of green partnership has been formed for the recent several months including Japan-U.S. Climate Partnership on Ambition, Decarbonization, and Clean Energy, The Quad Climate Working Group (Australia-India-Japan-the US), the EU-India High-Level Dialogue on Climate Change. In addition, key dialogue has been convened including China-Germany-France Climate Summit and US-China Climate Dialogue

Even though the formation might contain geopolitical implication, international cooperation including real consensus among large economies are indispensable to make the world align with the objective of the Paris Agreement given the impacts of such large economies (Aggregate amounts of CO2 from fuel combustion in China, US, EU, India and Japan account for around 62% of global emissions in 2018 according to IEA.). Moreover, international cooperation on the climate agenda can benefit partners themselves. First, green technology developments could be accelerated through cross-border multi-players’ efforts, which eventually benefit all parties. Second, market expansion through collective green investments would encourage new entry of market players and may push the costs down through the competition or a scale economy, which could reduce the burden of countries in the end. Third, clean hydrogen could be rolled out more efficiently through developing global supply chain.

From the global climate goal’s perspective, the rest of the world, accounting for around 38% of global CO2, is equally important. The challenge lies in how global leadership among the aforementioned key countries could offer effective cooperation with third countries such as ASEAN which demonstrate continuous economic growth with persistence growth of emissions. ASEAN 5 countries in terms of emissions level -Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – state in its Nationally Determined Contribution, the commitment of climate action under the Paris Agreement, that they can achieve more ambitious target with international supports such as finance, technology transfer and capacity-building. For example, Indonesia commits a 29% reduction of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions from Business-As-Usual (BAU) level by 2030, but expressing a 41% reduction with international supports. Philippines commits a 75% reduction of cumulative GHGs emissions between 2020 and 2030 from BAU, but this target is dramatically downsized to a 2.71% reduction without international supports.

Regardless of who would take up the role, the global leadership is required not only forming collective action and consensus among large emitters but also working closely with the next growing economies to draw the roadmap of the transition to low carbon economy, fitting for the recipient countries by bringing all available technologies, finance options and knowledge.

Written by Hiroki Sekine

Hiroki Sekine is visiting fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He was director of the policy and strategy office for financial operations at JBIC from July 2016 until June 2019 and, most recently, senior advisor to the corporate planning department at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC).

Photograph: The White House |

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