By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

At the China-US Climate-Smart / Low Carbon Cities Summit held in Beijing on June 7 and 8, 2016 the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters announced expanded co-operation in their efforts to counter climate change.

One of the most important results of the summit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Compact of Mayors, a global coalition of mayors and city officials pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and China’s Alliance of Pioneer Peaking Cities (APPC), an alliance established in September 2015 at the inaugural China-US Climate-Smart / Low Carbon Cities Summit in Los Angeles to encourage developed cities to peak their emissions before the national 2030 target established at Paris. A total of 23 APPC member-cities and provinces are now committed to peaking emissions by or before 2030, up from 11 at APPC’s founding in September 2015.  Cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou have even committed to peaking their carbon dioxide emissions by the end of 2020.  According to the World Resources Institute, these 23 cities and provinces represent about 16.8 percent of China’s population and 15.6 percent of China’s carbon dioxide emissions.

China recognises that its cities must play a vital role in meeting the country’s ambitious climate change targets. It is estimated that 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to cities. As urban populations increase and cities become more developed, the unchecked consequences will typically be higher carbon dioxide emissions from construction, residential and office buildings, vehicular traffic, and industrial operations.  Chinese policy makers will likely seek to differentiate between those developed cities that may find it easier to reduce their emissions and those cities, particularly in the Western region of the country, that are still rapidly industrializing and are thus less likely to be able to find “quick fixes” for carbon reduction.  One aim of the APPC is to promote cities with demonstrated success in green development to act as torchbearers for less developed cities.

The MOU includes pledges by the members of both APPC and the Compact of Mayors to: (i) establish ambitious and achievable targets and actions to control greenhouse gas emissions; (ii) report their greenhouse gas inventories; (iii) create a municipal or regional climate action plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; (iv) and enhance bilateral partnership and cooperation between the US and China to support sustained partnerships and knowledge sharing.  While achieving peak carbon emissions by 2030 is an ambitious goal, drafts of China’s thirteenth five-year plan covering 2016-2020 (available in Chinese here) had already set a target for developed cities to peak their emissions ahead of the national 2030 target date.  Imposing more stringent targets on developed cities will be necessary to allow for continued growth in regions that are still industrializing.  In the coming months, the strategies implemented to achieve these targets in the 23 APPC cities and provinces across China will provide a preview of how climate changed may be addressed at the national level.

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