China has recently announced four important environmental targets, building on the promise made by President Xi in September 2020 to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. The country now aims to reduce its carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) by over 65% by 2030, in comparison to 2005 levels. The nation also plans to nearly triple its wind and solar capacity by 2030, increase forest volume by 6 billion metric tonnes from 2005 levels and to expand the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 25% by 2030. The latter is a step up from the previous target of 20% by 2030. But are these pledges realistic and how will China be able to deliver them?
President Xi Jinping unveiled these targets at the recent UN Climate Ambition Summit on 12th December 2020. Leslie Hook, an environmental and clean energy correspondent for the FT, reflected that “President Xi’s appearance was the most anticipated” of all the world leaders and that his “statement was the most consequential.”
In a speech delivered via video-link, President Xi placed strong emphasis on the importance of global cooperation to tackle climate change: “In meeting the climate challenge, no one can be aloof and unilateralism will get us nowhere. Only by upholding multilateralism, unity and cooperation can we deliver shared benefits and win-win for all nations.” Xi also commented on the wider global circumstances in which he presented these proposals: “At present, the international landscape is evolving more rapidly and COVID-19 is triggering deep reflections on the relationship between man and nature. In this context, I wish to make three proposals…”.
Xi’s announcement was met with a sceptical reaction from some environmental campaigners, who pointed out that China’s new targets only represent slight improvements from previous goals. Li Shuo, an energy policy officer at Greenpeace, referred to the announcement as an “incremental step forward” and commented that “China’s announcement today is a salute to the Paris Agreement. But there is no time for champagne. The hard work begins tomorrow.” In a similar vein, The Economist observed that “those who had hoped, in advance of the summit, that President Xi Jinping might use it to offer some indication as to how this [reaching carbon neutrality by 2060] would happen, were disappointed.”
However other campaigners and activists were content with the scale of China’s ambitions, but also keen to see the steps that China will take to achieve the targets. Researchers at the Natural Resources Defence Council commented: “Today’s announcement by President Xi signals China’s continued intention to actively fight climate change and shift its economy toward a carbon-neutral future. China’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 was a game-changer; the challenge now will be to set forth stronger near-term domestic and international policies that can set a strong foundation for achieving this goal.” We should hope that these “near-term domestic and international policies” will be published in the National 14th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development, which is expected to be released in March 2021 and will guide Chinese development from 2021-2025. China could use this Plan to reiterate its strong commitment to achieving carbon neutrality and swiftly moving away from traditional fossil fuels.
For example, as suggested by the president of Energy Foundation China, Zou Ji, China could establish a cap for CO2 emissions and set targets for controlling its emissions of powerful non-CO2 greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons. Zou Ji remarked: “I suggest an advisory target at first, of reaching peak carbon by the end of the 14th FYP [Five Year Plan] – 2024 or 2025, with total emissions not to exceed 10-10.3 billion tonnes per year. In the Paris Agreement we committed to achieving peak carbon by 2030. Regardless of how high that peak will be, and whether or not we get there early, if we’re going to do that we need to set targets and start the process now.” We shall wait to see if Zou Ji’s enthusiasm for a carbon dioxide emissions cap is reflected in the content of the forthcoming Five Year Plan or if other concerns are prioritised at the expense of the environment.
However, we should note that these targets only relate to China’s domestic environmental and climate affairs. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forms a significant part of China’s foreign policy and at present the country heavily supports fossil fuel generation overseas. China is involved in the construction of many coal-fired power plants globally. As David Sandalow, former Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs for the United States, notes, “recent studies have found a Chinese role in more than 100 GW of coal-fired power plants under construction globally”. Such broad involvement in fossil fuel generation in overseas nations naturally puts into question the integrity of China’s own target.
While initially countries may have been happy to receive Chinese support, attitudes in the recipient countries have begun to change. In 2020 the renowned Goldman Environmental Prize was awarded to Chibeze Ezekiel from Ghana. This was in recognition of his efforts in organising a four year long grassroots campaign in Ghana to block the construction of a Chinese-financed 700MW coal power plant and adjoining port to import coal. As noted on Chibeze Ezekiel’s page on the Goldman website, “the Ekumfi project, proposed by the Volta River Authority and Shenzhen Energy Group, required a $1.5 billion loan from the China African Development Fund to finance both the coal power plant and port.” Ezekiel’s campaign not only successfully blocked Chinese investment in this project but continues to push for investments in renewable energy, resulting in the Ghanian government releasing a Renewable Energy Master Plan in 2019.
Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, also notes the important foreign policy implications that the election of Joe Biden as US President involve for China’s handling of the Belt and Road Initiative. Rudd comments, “President-elect Biden has … pledged to shine an uncomfortable light on China’s offshoring of emissions through the BRI on the campaign trail. If China does not want to be seen to be moving only at the behest of U.S. pressure, it would be well advised to begin to make these reforms earnestly”. This is important to note. Due to the tone set by President Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, from his election in 2016 China has merely had to attend COP events to be seen as prioritising the environment. With Joe Biden’s election in November 2020 the tone of international climate discussions has changed. The President-elect has from the start emphasised that his approach to the climate in office would be ambitious and wide-ranging. Therefore in order to not seem left behind on the world stage China must also commit to similarly challenging targets.
During the Obama administration, China and the USA found common ground in prioritising environmental concerns and built a partnership which resulted in both countries signing the Paris Agreement of 2015. With a Democrat again in the Oval Office there is significant scope for cooperation between the world’s two most prominent powers in tackling climate change. As important as President Xi’s pledges at the Climate Action Summit were, the most significant announcements from China regarding the climate will occur after President Biden has set his own climate agenda. We should hope that the two leaders compel each other to strive for more ambitious climate targets and drive other world leaders to follow their example.