China’s Climate Future

China’s Climate Future

China is trying to undo its world’s largest polluter status, but there are obstacles to meeting this goal.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

China is attempting to reverse its status as the world’s largest polluter; however, it faces obstacles in the form of unhelpful municipal governments and potential US sanctions.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that China will achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
– China’s efforts to reverse decades of a coal-fueled economy will be difficult.
– China could use the fight against climate change to ease tensions with the US, though the ever-worrisome situation in Xinjiang involves lines that the US will not cross.

While the world was reacting to the devasting floods in Europe in late July, the Chinese province of Henan experienced its own nightmare. Four days of torrential rainfall drowned Henan’s capital Zhengzhou. Floodwaters drenched the city and trapped hundreds of people in the city’s subway, leading to scores of lives lost. This calamitous flood, which consequently led to the evacuation of 100,000 people and the crippling of the city’s transport system and power grids, has been attributed to the toll that climate change is having on China. Whether or not this event can be causally linked, China will likely see an increase in devastating events as global temperatures rise. China’s leadership has taken notice over the past decade and has set goals to offset such effects.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September 2020 that China would aim to combat climate change by achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. As China is currently the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, Xi’s proclamation was initially greeted as a strong step towards a greener future. However, the question remains whether China can feasibly meet Xi’s goal considering the government’s tendency to favor economic growth above all else. The policies required to reach these green goals will demand a massive upheaval of the country’s energy economy.

Since Xi’s speech, the Chinese government has pushed forward on tackling climate change. Actions are in motion to construct a vast number of solar panels, wind farms and nuclear power plants. According to Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy, if China is to meet Xi’s goals, it would have to invest $15 trillion in renewable energy while nearly eliminating its reliance on coal. Such a vast undertaking is not outside of the government’s ability. However, success hinges on mitigating factors that are intrinsic to China, a growing economy dependent on coal, and a disconnect between the orders of the central leadership and the actions of regional and municipal governments. Despite these protentional obstacles, the Climate Action Tracker has regarded China’s green efforts as “Highly Insufficient.” While it contends that China is on track to meet a 2030 deadline for peak carbon, more must be done.

Photo: Xinhua/Li Xueren

A GREENER CHINA

Consuming more coal than the rest of the world combined, China has been one of the slowest countries to act on climate change. At the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, China pressured other countries to agree to a weak non-binding resolution that was far below what climate scientists have deemed necessary to combat climate change. Described by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as China “rat-f—g us,” Beijing deemed climate change of minor importance when compared to its economy. The majority of China’s contribution to climate change comes from its long-standing status as the world’s manufacturer: 95% of China’s use of coal comes from the industrial sector.

China’s transition to being an advocate for climate change has been staggered. In the decade after the Copenhagen conference, China’s central government altered its approach to climate change, due to the mitigating factors of energy security, health crises and its evolution from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In 2016, the government banned the construction of new coal power plants, but the ban expired in 2018. In a perceived reversal, China proceeded to construct more coal plants than the rest of the world combined in 2020. On the other hand, China has also invested heavily in renewable energies such as wind and solar, as well as nuclear power. From 2010 to 2020, China’s wind power capacity increased from 31 gigawatts to 280 gigawatts, and its solar power capacity increased from 42 gigawatts to 250 gigawatts between 2015 and 2020. Consequently. China has become the leading country in renewable energy construction, accounting for an estimated 72% of solar panels and 45% of wind turbine construction.

The seemingly contradictory nature of these actions is drawn from the conflict between China’s central government and regional officials. The central government has outlined climate change as a key issue for the country, but regional officials are not always ready and willing to follow Beijing’s plans. This month, the provinces of Henan and Yunnan were charged by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment for failing to meet central government requirements after the city of Anyang failed to close 6.6 million tonnes of its coal caking capacity. So far, these provinces have only been ordered to submit rectification plans, but they demonstrate that China’s push for greater reduction of greenhouse emissions will likely be hampered by a lack of communication and follow-through by local and regional governments.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s flagship campaign of international infrastructure, is also a potential weak point in China’s green future. China has been criticized for seemingly using the BRI to export its coal-burning infrastructure overseas, with ongoing plant construction in Central Asia and Africa. China appears to understand this as more than half of the most recent BRI investments were focused on wind, solar and hydropower infrastructure.

Benxi Steel Industries

Photo: Andreas Habich

AN ECOLOGICAL CIVILIZATION?

Between 2016 and 2020, the US retreated from the fight against climate change under the Trump administration. Attempting to fill the void, China pushed itself forward to become a global climate leader. However, after the 2021 US presidential elections, President Joe Biden vowed to prioritize climate change during his four-year presidential term. Despite a lack of cooperation on a number of issues, climate change remains an opportunity for collaboration between Washington and Beijing and is an issue over which both Xi and Biden have shown serious concern. Tensions could be eased should the two leaders decide to work together on a greener future.

A significant thorn in any climate cooperation is Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has implemented mass internment of the Uyghur minority. Further complicating this issue is the fact that Xinjiang is an important hub for the global production of solar energy. The region produces an estimated 45% of the world’s supply of polysilicon, a key component in constructing solar panels, and there are reports that the mining workforce consists of Uyghurs working as forced laborers. In the US push against the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur community, there have been calls for sanctions to be placed on Chinese-made solar panels. Should the US government follow through with such sanctions, China’s effort to become a global hub of renewable energy would be crippled.

China’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 is bold but should be achieved to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Successfully reaching the goal would cement China as a world leader in the fight against climate change while boosting its international image. To do so, however, means altering an economy that has been heavily dependent on coal. The tragic events in Henan reveal that China is not safe from climate disasters. Unfortunately, if the country remains restrained by a coal-dominated economy and is unable to reign in regional and local officials, carbon neutrality is unlikely to be reached. China’s large investments in renewable energy show that they have a desire to change, but it will take time.