For many years, China refused to put any cap on its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, arguing that instead, rich countries should reduce their emissions more and help developing countries mitigate their emissions. However, since the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit (COP15), China has come under increasing international pressure for its fast-growing greenhouse gas emissions, finding it challenging to represent itself as a mere victim of rich countries’ policies. Since 2006 China surpassed the US, becoming the biggest GHGs emitter, and by 2019 China’s emissions contributed 27% of the global total, exceeding all developed nations combined. Moreover, China’s per capita GHGs emissions exploded from 2.1 tons in 1990 to 7.41 tons in 2020, which was still way behind the US (14.24 tons) but already more than rich countries like France (4.24 tons) or the UK (4.85 tons).
Despite international scrutiny, the change in China’s climate policy has been driven by strong self-interest, leading to ‘new normal’ economic development initiative in response to the country’s domestic challenges: Addressing energy security, confronting the health and legitimacy crisis caused by environmental degradations (particularly poor air quality), and responding to weaknesses in the “old” economic growth model. Beginning in the 12th Five Year Plan Period (2011–2015), China shifted from development based on the energy-intensive industry like heavy industry and export to a more balanced economy characterized by slower growth, an increasing role for services and domestic consumption, and a focus on innovation and low-carbon technologies.
- A key international player and its responsibilities
China’s development policy was a big success. In 2018, roughly two-thirds of global solar module production was in China. Moreover, China successfully decreased the solar electricity price to even less than the benchmark price for coal electricity. In 2020 China led the world in solar power by producing (254355) MW, way more than the US in second place (75372 MW). In addition, China nearly tripled its construction of onshore and offshore wind power projects in 2020 compared to the previous year and, as the world’s biggest wind power producer, built newer windfarm capacity in 2020 than the whole world combined in the year before. Moreover, the country did not limit itself to hard materials. China has a clear lead in terms of the underlying technology, with well over 150,000 renewable energy patents as of 2016, 29% of the global total. The next closest country was the U.S., which had a little over 100,000 patents.
Deviating from its previous insistence on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, at the 2015 Paris climate summit, China committed to peak its emissions around 2030 and making ‘best efforts to peak early.’ China aims for a 20% non-fossil fuel share in its 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) and has pledged to make the country carbon neutral in 2060. It has set the target to reduce carbon intensity (the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of GDP) by 18 percent and energy intensity by 13.5 percent by 2025. Particularly after the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, China considered itself a key international player. The country’s green boost made it confident enough to see a responsibility shouldered by China as a responsible major country following the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement.
- Environmental steps to enhance soft power
Moreover, China understands that accepting international environmental norms and supporting climate agreements can enhance its soft power. In the latest development, during the COP 26 summit, China and the US agreed to “enhance” their climate change ambitions, issuing a joint statement in which the two countries called for doing more, including a new stronger emission cuts target in 2025. In addition, China committed to addressing emissions from methane gas for the first time. Now China could represent itself as a responsible carbon superpower, bringing its biggest rival to the negotiation table and not going back home completely empty-handed. China also had significant gestures of supporting developing countries. As a member of Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), China called for the omission of the entire section on climate change mitigation from the summit’s draft agreement, and along with Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and G77 (a negotiating bloc of more than 130 poor and developing countries) pushed for including loss and damage funding in the COP26’s final decision text.
- Critics to China’s transition policies
Despite China’s achievements, climate advocates notice that China’s commitments, including the 2030 emission peak and 2060 net-zero, will not be enough to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. China’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) targets for non-fossil and renewable capacity are rated “insufficient” by organizations like Climate Action Tracker and even Chinese government organizations like the China Center for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, a government advisory body, recommend China set a 2025 total emissions cap.
The way that China handles some of its climate projects has also not satisfied critics. In July, China introduced its long-awaited emission trading system to target pollution while stressing its disagreement against the European Union’s plan to impose a tax on carbon-intensive goods entering the bloc. Environmentalists mention that the average carbon price in China is very low, and some carbon-intensive industries like cement and aluminum are exempted from the plan for now. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the country would stop building new coal-fired power projects abroad. However, China still adds new coal power plants at home with a 40-50-year lifespan and brings back retired coal power plants online to fix heating shortages from time to time. China also played a role in watering down COP26’s language on the use of coal. The current pandemic has also made the situation more complicated, and China’s coal, cement and steel production have all gone up due to billions of dollars of stimulus money that the government poured into energy-intensive industries to boost the COVID hit economy. Even the recent Sino-US climate agreement, although it sparked cautious optimism, suffers from the lack of clear deadlines and detail.
- China can do more
Besides economic activities, China’s political experiences are not always helpful either. Despite some openness, the Chinese Communist Party sees environmental activism as a threat, and any attempt to criticize the government for inaction is increasingly dangerous. On an international scale, China does not separate political disputes and climate policies and, as a result, always could change its climate policies. In September, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warned US climate envoy John Kerry that deteriorating US-China relations could undermine cooperation between the two countries on climate change.
What happens in China is critical to the global effort to combat climate emergency. Although the biggest GHGs emitter, China has significant capacities, particularly its ability to pursue long-term strategies and imply large-scale investments. The world follows China’s climate policies anxiously, hoping to see more ambitious plans.
By Bijan Tafazzoli
- The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Koc University, Istanbul.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.