China: climate change hero or villain?

There’s no denying China’s growing responsibility for global emissions, but the signs are it is moving to a greener future

The China-US climate pact has been described as a seminal moment in the politics of global warming (Pic: US Embassy/The Hague)

The China-US climate pact has been described as a seminal moment in the politics of global warming (Pic: US Embassy/The Hague)

By Joseph Curtin

China is sometimes characterised as a climate villain.

This claim is based on its rapidly growing greenhouse gas emissions and status as the largest single emitter since 2005, the year when it inherited this mantel from the US.

We often hear about how Chinese emissions have outstripped the EU and the US combined, or how coal fired power is allegedly expanding at an astounding rate.

This narrative feeds into a sense of helplessness about climate change. Whatever “we” do will be dwarfed by China’s growing emissions. It is also a convenient talking point for those who do not wish to act on climate change.

There is no denying China’s growing responsibility for climate change.

However, emissions per capita, its historic responsibility for the problem and its comparative ability to fund the transition to a low carbon economy must also be considered in order to come to a balanced assessment of liability, and capacity for action.

The weight ascribed to these metrics inevitably depends on where one sits.

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In a report published by the IIEA, Dublin, overall we find there is little evidence to support the sobriquet of villain. We argue that China’s international climate diplomacy and overall target setting has evolved in line with its growing emissions.

The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, decried as a failure at the time, in fact marked a central turning point in China’s approach to joint action.

This culminating with the announcement of the US-China climate deal in 2014, and the subsequent submissions of a comprehensive plan setting out China’s Intended Nationally Determined Commitment (INDC) to the UN on 30 July 2015.

Early Peak in Emissions?

China’s commitment to peak emissions in 2030 and to “make best efforts to peak early” may not sound particularly ambitious. Considering various metrics, however, this pledge as it stands is roughly equivalent to EU and US commitments. 

On the other hand, the new 2030 pledge and supporting action plan does not set a cap for Chinese emissions, and the overall level at which emissions will eventually peak remains dependent on GDP growth over the period.

More importantly, “dangerous” climate change is highly unlikely to be avoided on the basis of aggregate national pledges currently on the table.

Notwithstanding the adequacy of China’s pledge by international comparison, there is scope for bringing forward a more ambitious target, perhaps as part of the China’s 13th five-year plan.

China’s own projections suggest that in a “high penetration” renewables scenario, emissions could in fact peak by 2025. Others believe that a peak in coal consumption may have already been reached, and that a considerably earlier peak in emissions is now realistic.

But then again, with the inadequate pledges of rich countries like New Zealand, Japan, Canada, and Australia, Chinese policy makers will probably be wondering why they should be the ones to pick up the slack.

Capacity to deliver

Domestically, a robust climate policy framework is in place that has delivered existing targets, and which should ensure that future targets are delivered.

These successes can be attributed to central role of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), one of the most powerful bodies under the State Council, in policy making.

It also reflects increasingly stringent controls on the activity of regional authorities. China’s successful implementation of climate policy compares favourably with the “implementation gap” evident in many advanced economies.

On the other hand, monitoring, reporting and verification systems lack transparent expert and public review of data and methods.

Mandatory public disclosure of emission inventories by organisations and cities would be a welcome step forward.

Allowing for some form of international peer review of China’s efforts would be a further advance, albeit a highly controversial issue at international climate negotiations and a challenging one for China to deliver.

Most major Chinese cities suffer from severe air pollution caused in part by coal burning (Pic: 大杨/Flickr)

Most major Chinese cities suffer from severe air pollution caused in part by coal burning (Pic: 大杨/Flickr)

Significant progress has been made in putting a price on CO2 emissions. Seven pilot emissions trading schemes were launched in 2013, covering a total of 2,000 companies.

Between 2016 and 2020 the NDRC plans to gradually incorporating China’s 31 provinces and other regions into the scope of the scheme.

The launch of a national emissions trading scheme is a potentially groundbreaking development, but there is no need for China to replicate the design flaws evident in the EU’s scheme.

Most importantly, it is necessary to ensure a real and progressive scarcity of emission allowances, and this perhaps requires a mechanism to insulate the market for allowances from external shocks.

There have also been EU successes from which to learn: heavy fines have all but eliminated non-compliance; and moving progressively from nationally determined free-allocations to centralised auctioning, while favouring sectors exposed to carbon leakage, has also worked well from a political-economy perspective.

From coal to renewables?

China has emerged as a potential global leader in renewable technologies, and is now the largest investor in renewables of any country in the world.

The other side of the coin are measures that have been introduced to control coal consumption.

In 2014 coal consumption declined for the first time in many decades, and a target has been set to significantly reduce coal consumption over the next five years.

In the vicinity of Beijing and other major cities, there is an emerging trend towards the closure of coaled fired power plants.

Much progress has also been made in promoting low-carbon innovation. Nevertheless, if China is to achieve its aim of being a global leader in low-carbon technology markets, it will need to further strengthen its ability to innovate.

On the basis of this analysis there is little evidence to support the charge of climate villain. On the contrary, both internationally and domestically China is moving at a pace roughly commensurate with its liability for climate change.

Nor, however, could China yet be considered a hero. Areas for further improvements identified in this analysis include striving for an earlier cap to emissions, delivering national pricing of carbon, and a greater focus on innovation and transparency.

For the West the message is clear: stop pointing the finger at China and get on with your own plans for decarbonisation.

Joseph Curtin is Senior Fellow at the IIEA, Dublin and Member of Ireland’s National Advisory Council on Climate Change. The full report can be downloaded here.

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