After decades of fossil fuel-driven economic growth and industrialisation, China is now the world’s biggest carbon emitter, contributing almost a third of the world’s greenhouse gases in 2020.
It is also the most exposed to the impact of the climate crisis, in terms of its population size and number of environmental disasters, according to UN figures. Average temperatures and sea levels have risen faster than global averages, and in just one year since Cop26, China has experienced record-breaking floods and heatwaves, bringing with them severe energy crises.
China’s government has signed up to global climate pledges and is a big driver of renewable energy, but like with many countries, experts have raised concerns over the scale of the cuts.
“It is complicated,” said the Trivium analyst Cory Combs. “The general summary is: they are genuinely ambitious but also probably not enough.”
Of key concern as countries come together at Cop27 is China’s recent suspension of a climate agreement with the world’s other big global emitter, the US. At Cop26, the US and China made a declaration of cooperation but when the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, angered Beijing by visiting Taiwan this year, bilateral climate talks were suspended amid a suite of retaliatory acts.
For the 2015 Paris agreement, China pledged to peak its emissions by 2030. At a UN meeting in 2020, the president, Xi Jinping, announced a target of carbon neutrality by 2060. The following year, at another UN meeting, he pledged China would stop building coal-fired power plants.
The targets went beyond China’s national determined Paris agreement contributions, and signalled a significant domestic upshift towards a more sustainable economic strategy and focus on the environment. China had been the biggest producer of coal and accounted for about half of global coal consumption in 2021, and was the world’s largest foreign financier of fossil fuel infrastructure, according to the Council for Foreign Relations.
Domestically, China’s crucial “five-year plans”, which set out national policies for each political term, codified some of the new ambitions. In its 12th plan (covering 2011-15), Beijing had outlined a 16% reduction in energy intensity and a 17% reduction in the amount of carbon emissions per unit of GDP. In its 14th (2021-25), it committed to reducing the latter by 65%, and raised the share of non-fossil (renewable) fuels in primary energy consumption from 20% to 25%.
What’s been achieved
After the ban on new coal-fired power projects, Chinese banks committed to not investing in new overseas coal projects. “We haven’t seen any new coal projects after September 2021, so the data also supports the progress we’ve seen on overseas coal investment,” Shuang Liu, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute recently told the Asia Society.
China has also launched major efforts on improving its climate adaption and resilience, including a national strategy increasing protections of wetlands and animal species, and growing the proportion of grasslands and forested areas.
The government has invested heavily in electric vehicles. By June, China had nearly 10m new-energy vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles – more than half the world’s estimated total, according to the London School of Economics.
Combs says China is “remarkably ambitious” on its renewable energy goals, and is on track to hit 1200GW in renewables by the end of the decade. There has been a huge buildup in onshore wind and solar, more recently in offshore wind. In 2021, new projects in China contributed 80% of global additions to wind power. Timelines are “uncertain” but China is also advancing in research and development of nuclear energy.
But there’s a problem. Essentially, China’s renewables are advancing faster than the electricity grids, markets, and transmission technology can keep up, creating a “huge roadblock”.
“In the last year we’ve seen at least five provinces have to scale back approvals of distributed renewable energy resources because they were building up too much capacity,” Combs said.
Electricity production and markets are tied to provinces, and the regions with some of the best potential for renewable energy generation, such as the Gobi desert, have a fraction of the demand than less capable markets, such as Guangdong, have. And transmission-line projects are not yet advanced enough to transfer it.
The climate emergency is also complicating efforts to mitigate its impact. This summer, China experienced a record-breaking drought and heatwave, which dried up parts of the economically, industrially and environmentally crucial Yangtze River. For Sichuan, which has been so successful building hydropower that it now draws 80% of its power needs from it, that led to massive energy shortages.
In 2021, China faced an even bigger power crunch, exacerbated by the division of political power and responsibility between the central and provincial governments. In 2022, further pressure came from the war in Ukraine and soaring demand with undulating Covid restrictions. The Climate Tracker estimated China’s emissions rose 3.4% in 2021.
In response to these successive energy and economic crises, China – like some European countries – has returned to what observers hope is a temporary increased reliance on coal.
“With the 14th [five-year plan] targets to be met by 2025, and 2022 in effect a lost year for energy decarbonisation efforts, China has just lost one-third of its remaining time to meet its goals,” said the Asia Society in a recent issues paper.
Combs added: “It’s doing what it believes it can do, what it can achieve without completely destroying its economy.”
While China has launched some big initiatives and appears committed to mitigating the effects of the climate crisis and increasing its use of green energy, its international commitments fall short of what experts say is needed. The net zero target is widely regarded as too late to ensure the world limits global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and emissions must peak by 2025 to be in line with Paris goals.
“What separates China from the rest of the world is the power of its leader, Xi Jinping, to make climate a politically non-negotiable pillar of long-term policymaking,” said the Asia Society paper. “But realistically, for now, officials will not sacrifice short-term economic demands for the 2030 target – and certainly not for 2060 – raising the prospect of serious challenges near the end of the decade.”