The successes of the Paris climate summit of 2015 could not have been achieved without months of groundwork from Chinese leader Xi Jinping and former US president Barack Obama to reach an agreement on a deal.
“As the two largest economies in the world and the two largest carbon emitters, we have both determined that it is our responsibility to take action,” Obama would later announce, with Xi sitting next to him.
But the mood was rather different this week at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, where bitter rivalry between the two superpowers has hampered hopes that the two governments might find common ground once again.
The chances of closer collaboration were also scotched by comments from Joe Biden, the current US president, about the absence of his Chinese counterpart at the summit. “We showed up,” he told reporters shortly before world leaders departed from the Scottish city, leaving their climate change officials behind for two weeks of negotiations. Biden then described Xi’s non-appearance at the Glasgow conference as a “big mistake”.
“The single most important thing that’s gotten the attention of the world is climate,” Biden added. “It just is a gigantic issue and they [the Chinese] walked away”.
For the Chinese that was all a bit rich, following Donald Trump’s decision to take the Americans out of the Paris deal four years ago.
“China-US joint efforts resulted in the Paris Agreement… it was hard-fought, you can’t just give up, but the US gave up,” China’s climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua fired back in comments of his own to reporters. “Five years were wasted but now we need to work harder and catch up,” he added.
But would Xi Jinping give any signals that the Chinese were ready to help in making up some of that lost ground? He delivered his remarks to the summit in written form (China’s foreign ministry later explained the host of the conference did not provide the option to take part by video link), confirming a number of China’s previous commitments to combat global warming. But despite coming under pressure from leaders like French leader Emmanuel Macron to send a “decisive signal” on climate change, Xi’s message generally disappointed the attendees at the summit in lacking new pledges. Campaigners have also rued a missed opportunity to get climate change under greater control, warning that we are running out of chances to slow global warming.
What is the background to China’s climate commitments at COP26?
The 2015 Paris agreement aims to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above levels that prevailed on the planet before the onset of the Industrial Revolution (when fossil fuels began to be burned in increasing quantities). The gathering in Glasgow was a chance for countries to show their commitment to the cause, primarily via non-binding NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions, in which signatories to the Paris accord are tasked with submitting their emission-reduction plans, and where possible volunteer to go further than earlier targets.
Xi signalled a year ago that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and reach peak emissions by 2030. But Beijing had missed several deadlines in publishing its latest NDC, leading to speculation that the Chinese might go on a diplomatic offensive in Glasgow by introducing a set of more ambitious goals in a bid to outflank their critics, and score political points in the wider row with Washington.
When the NDC was finally submitted to the United Nations last Thursday there wasn’t much that was new, however. The submission made a clearer commitment that Chinese emissions will peak by 2030 and China said it would increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy consumption to 25%, an uptick on the 20% share pledged previously. There was also a promise of more reforestation and to boost the installed capacity of wind and solar power to a newly specified higher level. But climate campaigners had hoped for bolder steps and were disappointed, saying that the Chinese had missed a chance to demonstrate greater leadership at a critical moment for the planet.
In particular they wanted a pledge of an earlier peak in emissions than 2030, with the argument that China could do more to accelerate the spread of renewable energy, bringing the peak forward by as many as five years. And while the Chinese did give more details on proposals to cap emissions from high-polluting sectors like steelmaking and petrochemicals, campaigners wanted to see more ambition and greater urgency in the nation’s plan. “If the world is going to have any chance of coming to grips with the climate crisis, China – as well as all other major emitters – needs to graduate from taking small steps to giant leaps toward a cleaner and safer future,” Helen Mountford, World Resources Institute’s vice president for Climate and Economics, told CNN.
Is it fair to expect the Chinese to do more to fight global warming?
Commentators say that the Chinese aren’t alone in failing to do more to respond to climate change. The United Nation’s latest tally of all the revised plans submitted in advance of the Glasgow summit has calculated that governments aren’t doing enough to curb greenhouse gases and that the world is heading for warming of 2.7°C – deep into dangerous territory in climate change terms – by the end of the century.
Some countries have been rebuked more than others for the limited commitments they have made. Australia submitted its NDC without a stronger emissions target for 2030, for instance, while Brazil and Mexico have set goals that are weaker than their previous pledges.
Even in cases where governments have agreed to more aggressive milestones, few will reach the thresholds needed to deliver on global warming goals, says Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit organisation that monitors efforts to achieve the targets set out in Paris. It reckons that just one country – The Gambia – is doing enough to meet the 1.5°C target.
The pressure on China to act is the greatest, however, because its share of climate-changing pollution is so high that the Paris objectives won’t be met without rapid Chinese action to reduce emissions. China is now responsible for more than a quarter of greenhouse gas creation, with emissions that exceed the United States, the European Union, Japan and all the world’s other developed nations combined. CREA, a Finland-based environmental research group, has even highlighted how single companies in China are bigger polluters than entire nations too. Huaneng, one of the biggest Chinese energy producers, generates similar emissions to the UK. Shanghai Auto, a leading carmaker, emits as much as Argentina. PetroChina, the largest of China’s oil majors, pumps out more greenhouse gases than Vietnam and South Korea put together.
And what about China’s coal conundrum?
Another factor in the subdued response to China’s climate pledges is that the summit comes at a time when Beijing is turning up the dial on coal-fired power to stave off domestic energy shortages (see WiC559). More than 220 million metric tonnes of extra coal will be produced this year, a rise of nearly 6% from last year. This burning of fossil fuel will increase carbon dioxide emissions by a full percentage point on a global basis, claims Jan Ivar Korsbakken, a senior researcher at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. “The timing is horrible, coming right before the climate summit,” he earlier told the New York Times.
Chinese policymakers insist that the surge in coal output is temporary. But critics have seized on the situation as another signal of how Beijing’s commitments on fossil fuels start to fray when – in the shorter term – the going gets tough, as it has done with the energy crunch of the last few weeks.
Indeed, China’s dependence on coal is now a touchstone issue in the climate debate. Three-fifths of the country’s energy comes from coal and China now accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption on an annual basis. Despite a much-heralded decision in September to stop the funding of new coal-fired power plants overseas, China grew its own coal-fired capacity at a scale of three times the rest of the world combined last year.
Beijing counters that it is building the most efficient and lowest-polluting plants. Critics aren’t swayed, warning that the battle against global warming will never be won while the Chinese are pumping growing quantities of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
How do the Chinese respond to the call to do more on climate change?
Beijing balks at being singled out for special attention, preferring to shift the focus to how developed nations must do more to fight climate change. Part of Beijing’s rationale is that developed countries have been generating greenhouse gases over a much longer period. Analysis from Rhodium Group underscores how richer nations in the OECD bloc have emitted four times more CO2 than China since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s.
“The citizens of developed countries have been enjoying the benefits of industrialisation at the expense of the environment for more than 200 years. When they demand the developing countries stop their industrial development to meet the climate targets, debate is sure to ensue,” the Global Times argued.
China still categorises itself as a “developing country’, and points out its per capita emissions are also lower than those of wealthier nations, especially the US, which are twice as high. But this argument is weakening, according to Paul G Harris, a professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, who says per capita emissions in China are now similar to Germany’s and well above the UK’s. Harris told the Hong Kong Free Press last week that many urban Chinese are now bigger polluters – based on their lifestyles and carbon footprints – than millions of people in the US and Europe. “High-end polluters in Beijing and Shanghai are role models for hundreds of millions of less well-off Chinese people,” Harris says. “This means that future efforts to reduce China’s total emissions will struggle as more people aspire to live like their affluent compatriots.”
China’s per capita emissions are now more than triple those of countries like Brazil and India as well. That makes it harder for Beijing to claim leadership of the developing nations that are demanding that richer countries do more to counter global warming.
The Chinese can still be commended for making substantial changes to their high-carbon economy, with huge investments in renewable energy in recent years. Despite being criticised for relying on coal-fired power, China leads the world in deployments of wind and solar power, for instance. Chinese leaders can also make the case that they deliver on the commitments they make, sometimes surpassing their targets. As an example last month the State Council released a white paper on how China was exceeding its domestic targets in carbon intensity (a measure of energy usage per unit of GDP). Progress like this “means that China had more than fulfilled its commitment to the international community”, the paper proclaimed.
Where will China’s climate policy focus most in future?
Some of the improvement in emissions will come naturally as China’s economy gravitates towards more value-added growth engines, with bigger proportions of GDP derived from sectors that have reduced carbon footprints.
In the meantime the focus is more on delivering the country’s current goals rather than dazzling the delegates at COP26 with new targets, an unnamed member of the Chinese delegation in Glasgow told the Global Times last week. Western nations would do better to meet their funding commitments to developing nations, before pointing fingers at others, the Chinese delegate added.
Xie Zhenhua, the head of the Chinese team at the COP26 summit, warmed to the same theme this week, accusing developed countries of not doing more to cut emissions faster and failing to provide the $100 billion a year they have promised to help poorer countries cut emissions and cope with the impact of extreme weather.
Back in China the path to a greener economy comes with a hefty price tag, with predictions from Jing Liu, a senior economist at HSBC, that an eye-popping Rmb200 trillion ($31 trillion) needs to be invested if Beijing is to reach its net-zero goal for 2060.
That sounds like a daunting amount, although Liu says that finding the money shouldn’t be too much of problem because China still has high domestic savings rates. Two-thirds of the finance will go into transforming the industrial and energy sectors, the two biggest polluters. One of the main recipients will be new sources of renewable power, with estimates from the International Energy Agency that China needs to increase its solar generation by a factor of seven, and its wind power by a factor of nine, to offset a reduced reliance on coal. Another key priority for investment is ultra-high voltage (UHV) technology that (arguably) matches supply and demand more effectively across the grid; plus new energy storage systems that tackle the problem of more volatile supply from renewable sources like wind, solar and water.
Of course leadership in these new sectors could also turn out to be a boon for the Chinese, uncovering new chances to build vast new businesses from frontier technologies and exporting them. That would turn the economics of climate change policy on its head from a situation in which it is often seen today as a drag on growth and a drain on resources. “Despite all the challenges, the green transformation of China’s economy also comes with enormous opportunities,” Liu of HSBC agrees, describing the Chinese timelines for peak carbon and net-zero as “ambitious yet achievable”.
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