China’s Climate Change Challenge

Spearhead Analysis – 21.12.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

China this year took a lead role at the COP23 climate change summit in Bonne. Since President Donald Trump withdrew US support from the Paris climate accords, China has dedicated all its efforts towards filling the power vacuum left in the US absence. Reportedly, eighty-two Chinese delegates and several NGO attendees left for Germany to attend the climate summit.

The best practices and latest technologies in environmental protection were showcased by the Chinese COP23 delegation. China’s special representative on climate change affairs and the chief climate negotiator at the 2015 Paris agreement, Xie Zenhua has now been identified as the top powerbroker at Bonn. 

The Chinese President Xi Jinping promised two years ago that Beijing would be launching an emissions trading system in 2017 that will most likely be the largest of its type. Nat Keohane, head of the Global Climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund, was recently quoted saying, “The anticipation of this announcement, which has been building for months, is a reflection of how crucial China is.”

While the Chinese representatives did not launch Beijing’s national carbon trading scheme at the summit, they did assert the emissions trading market will be launching soon, with greater cooperation with the European Union.

Moreover, China played a proactive role in mediating between developed and developing countries with respect to their differences over pre-Paris contributions to greenhouse emissions, which have most notably left the two divided ever since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

During the course of their stay, Chinese delegates stood by the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) in protest against US President Donald Trump’s wide disdain for climate change. US unwillingness to formalize a pre-2020 climate agenda is well-known. Subsequently, all eyes have turned to China in hopes that it can step up and claim the leadership mantle.

In light of China’s dynamic leadership at COP23, China seems to be a well poised candidate to push for international cooperation on climate change. On the surface its seems to be the exact opposite of the US—the world’s second-largest polluter and second-highest per capita emitter (significantly higher than either India or China). Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax started by the Chinese to steal American jobs. He is most certainly completely oblivious to any damage that reneging on Paris means for American goodwill or the environment.

The hard reality is that as the Chinese continue to press for action on international forums, Chinese companies back home are signing multi-billion-dollar coal deals with countries like South Africa and Kenya.

President Xi endorsed a G20 plan calling on development banks to support poor countries to lower their emissions, only days after his own development bank signed a $1.5bn loan deal to build a South African coal plant.

Amu Coal—a consortium of Kenyan and Chinese energy and investment firms—is set to develop a coal plant in the only region untouched by industrial development in the area. According to reports, this plant may be Kenya’s single largest pollution source.

China has been sensitive about setting new precedents. Beijing’s water, solar and wind energy output surpassed the total power output of France and Germany combined in 2015. However, the makeup of China’s own grid is such that fossil fuels continue to play a vital role and still cover a large part of the nation’s energy needs. Renewable energy only contributes to about 12 percent of China’s total energy consumption. According to “China’s Carbon Emissions Report” in 2015, over 90 percent of the country’s carbon emissions come from fossil fuel combustion; over 65 percent of which comes from coal.

China is intensely aware of its own carbon footprint and feels the responsibility to act. The Kyoto Protocol puts the financial responsibility for environmental clean-up on developed nations. Yet, China feels the need to contribute on a voluntary basis. Aside from actively attempting to mobilize other countries in the international arena, it is also necessary for carbon emitters to reduce carbon intensity, which is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of GDP, by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2020.

Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative for climate change, said the reduction of carbon emission per unit of GDP by 2020 could “far surpass” the current goal of 40 to 45 per cent, provided the target on energy saving and emission reduction set by the 13th five-year plan was reached. Xie made the remarks in Hong Kong at the “Global Climate Change and China’s Response” seminar organized by the ‘Our Hong Kong Foundation’s Chinese Culture Institute’.

A 2014 report published online, “Determinants of stagnating carbon intensity in China”, however revealed slow progress on this issue.

A leadership role in any climate change talks is dependent on transparency. Any country aspiring for leadership in this context will need to build confidence in the system by providing a high level of assurance that it is indeed doing what it has promised to do, with verifiable results. It is absolutely essential for China to align its much-appreciated environmental efforts with its development projects. As much as all countries engrossed in climate change talks are deliberating over balanced energy mixes and extended renewable capacity, it is worth pointing out that economic development is still very much reliant on fossil fuels. The world’s climate leader fleeing the negotiation table is a huge blow. Looking ahead, aspiring climate leaders must reconcile rhetoric with exceedingly ambitious actions.

It is important to note China’s domestic climate policies have shown great leadership potential in their own right. In 2016 approval of new coal-fired power plants in China dropped by 85 percent. China is also known to be investing in renewable energy at a record-shattering pace.

China has dedicated significant time and energy to cleaning up its coal industry. Carbon capture and geological storage (CCS) is currently being developed and used for commercial activities to cut down China’s emissions.  

Current climate change discourse in Beijing shows that policymakers in China are proactively searching for opportunities to lead the rest of the globe by example. Efforts must be made by the international community to encourage China’s potential.