China announced new climate goals. But it can’t quit coal just yet

Emissions rise from cooling towers at a coal-fired power station in Tongling, China. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)
Emissions rise from cooling towers at a coal-fired power station in Tongling, China. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

China’s President Xi Jinping announced new climate targets during his Sept. 22 address to the U.N. General Assembly, including the nation’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

China’s international climate leadership seems to be in direct conflict with Beijing’s continued promotion of fossil fuel projects at home and abroad, however — so why did Xi make this announcement? Here’s what you need to know about its political and scientific implications.

The timing of China’s announcement is strategic

It’s a big year for the 2015 Paris agreement — by year-end 2020, countries are supposed to submit their second round of “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs), as well as their long-term strategies. Current NDCs target the 2025-2030 time frame, while long-term strategies target mid-century goals. Both are self-designed pledges tailored to each country’s circumstances.

Xi’s announcement suggests that, administratively, China expects to fulfill both 2020 requirements on time, a goal few other countries will probably meet. China is also on track to achieve its original Paris goals ahead of schedule. This lends some new credibility to China’s claim to climate leadership.

China is finalizing its 14th Five-Year Plan, which analysts anticipate will include new climate and energy targets for 2021-2025 that build upon those in previous Five-Year Plans. Since the Paris agreement has minimal enforcement mechanisms, it essentially relies on domestic policy to back up the goals pledged internationally. The 2020 Paris agreement deadline coincides with China’s domestic planning horizon, effectively giving the international community a look under the hood to understand how China plans to meet its international goals.

External politics may factor into China’s plans

Making this announcement before the U.S. election could be a sign that China anticipates scaled-up U.S. pressure and demands on climate action if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins in November. A new U.S. NDC would come sometime in 2021 at the earliest, so an early announcement from China would preclude the possibility of another round of coordinated U.S.-China climate targets, giving Beijing more autonomy this time.

The announcement may also appease the European Union. The E.U. has been increasing bilateral engagement with China in an attempt to fill the void left by the United States, which has dramatically reduced cooperation with China on energy and climate over the past four years. During a mid-September leader’s summit, the E.U. urged China to “to strengthen its climate commitments in terms of peaking carbon dioxide emissions and setting the goal of climate neutrality domestically”, and agreed to launch a new high-level dialogue in advance of the COP 26 major international climate summit, which has been postponed until November 2021.

China faces an uphill battle to reduce its carbon emissions

Beijing relies on high-level climate and energy goals to compel local governments to act. National targets become provincial targets, which become municipal-level targets, and so on — and meeting these targets affects the evaluation of local officials.

Sometimes this can create perverse incentives, such as the time people were left without heat in the winter so provinces would not violate national coal heating restrictions. But on the whole, targets are important levers in what is still primarily a top-down political system. Without stringent climate targets, local governments under pressure to stimulate the economy after the covid-19 slowdown will face few constraints on energy demand or infrastructure approvals.

Despite calls for a green recovery, China’s post-outbreak stimulus focuses primarily on promoting high-carbon energy and infrastructure projects. China has an estimated 249.6 gigawatts of coal power capacity under construction or in the planning stages — more than the entire coal capacity of the United States (246.2 GW) or India (229 GW).

This includes 40.8 GW of new coal capacity proposed in the first-half of 2020 alone, of which 17 GW is already permitted for construction. Despite rampant overcapacity and low utilization rates in existing plants, as well as record low prices for the renewable energy technologies that China leads the world in deploying, pressure to boost GDP figures combined with antiquated pricing mechanisms means that officials are pushing through approvals for projects that make little economic sense.

China has also played a prominent role in supporting coal-fired plants elsewhere. Increasingly, China has become the lender of last resort as countries such as Japan and South Korea join other countries and multilateral banks in restricting overseas coal investments. Studies have found that the majority of China’s overseas energy investment is going to finance coal plants, and these plants tend to use less efficient technology than the plants they are building at home.

Increasingly, however, China is under pressure to undertake more dramatic changes in its domestic and overseas coal activities — the E.U., for example, urged that Beijing place a moratorium on building new plants at home and abroad, and Biden has vowed to make similar demands if elected.

What does this mean for the global climate?

The Climate Action Tracker estimates that China’s pledge of climate neutrality by 2060 could reduce global temperature by about 0.2 to 0.3°C by the end of the century — that would be the single biggest reduction ever estimated by this European modeling tool, which translates country pledges into climate impacts. As the world’s largest carbon emitter and energy consumer, China transitioning away from a carbon-based energy system would have a huge global impact.

Of course, there are all sorts of methodological issues with making estimates of the impact of climate goals on global temperature — especially China’s goals, which as my research has shown, tend to operate with their own set of metrics and assumptions. And there are many ways to interpret what carbon neutrality might actually mean for China.

Ultimately, having a long-term goal for carbon neutrality is only meaningful today if it influences action now. For China, phasing out fossil fuel use in key sectors — and keeping the economy growing — will require far more ambitious measures. Meanwhile, making this pledge buys China some increased leverage in the climate negotiations, and perhaps even some global goodwill at a time of mounting concern over China’s actions at home and abroad.

Joanna Lewis is provost’s distinguished associate professor of energy and environment and director of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program at Georgetown University. She is the author of “Green Innovation in China: China’s Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy” (Columbia University Press, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @JoannaILewis.

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