China’s dual status as both the world’s top coal consumer and renewable energy developer raises questions about whether the country is meeting its climate pledges, but some analysts say focusing on these two domestic factors misses the larger picture of China’s role in the international energy transition.
“China’s engagement in the climate agenda is usually viewed through a domestic policy lens,” write Danae Kyriakopoulou, Lucie Qian Xia and Chunping Xie in a new policy paper.
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“A different, at times overlooked, dimension is China’s role in international collaboration and coordination in climate action,” they add.
As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has long been the object of international emissions reductions negotiations, and the nation’s climate policies have drawn even greater scrutiny after President Xi Jinping announced ambitious national climate targets in 2020. Because the country’s leaders have claimed a right to drive economic growth by burning fossil fuels—as wealthy northern countries have done for the past two centuries—China’s emissions policy has largely resisted cutting back on fossil fuels, and many of China’s climate policies address emissions in terms of carbon intensity rather than total reduction to allow for continued growth.
The country’s domestic progress towards Xi’s pledges is being set by the 1+N policy framework aimed at peaking carbon emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060.
“The ‘1’ refers to the ‘guiding opinions’ on the two climate goals, while the ‘N’ stands for the ‘action plan’ for the 2030 peak emissions goal as well as policy measures and actions for key sectors and industries,” the paper’s authors explain in Carbon Brief, citing veteran Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua.
Other countries are quick to criticize China’s continued—and rising—coal investment and consumption that is undermining climate progress, especially after the country responded to a 2021 energy crunch by ramping up coal. That trend continues, according to Bloomberg, and China’s top planning agency has approved three different billion-dollar coal projects. Global leaders were also critical of China’s weak climate promises leading into the COP 26 climate summit.
But countering perspectives acknowledge China’s renewable energy gains, like its installed wind capacity and solar capacity that comprise global shares of 39% and 36%, respectively, or its current plan to increase the share of non-fossil energy in total energy consumption to 25% by 2030 and more than 80% by 2060, writes Carbon Brief. Domestically, China is now expected to set solar capacity records as it adds an average 83 to 99 gigawatts per year of new capacity from 2022 to 2025, says PVBuzz Media.
This seemingly contradictory performance could be a launchpad for China to drive international climate action, some analysts say. China’s domestic policies—like its Emissions Trading Scheme or Dual-Control Policy—may not yet have the impetus to push domestic emissions down. But Xi’s announcement that China would end international coal financing will have significant global effects. And as the country’s influence grows through its Belt and Road strategy and investments in other countries, China can use its leverage to promote clean energy development.
“China [can] play a key role, not only as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, but also as the frontrunner in clean-energy technologies and an increasingly important lender to developing countries,” the authors write.
“In particular, our research shows that China could share the experience with—and learn from—other countries to further increase the integration of renewables into the grid.”
China could also remain as the primary global supplier of low-carbon equipment, they add, especially in the solar, wind, and battery storage industries.
Kyriakopoulou, Xia, and Xie are not alone in questioning the criticism directed at China. In the aftermath of the country’s COP 26 announcements, a U.S. climate scientist contended that, rather than indicating poor compliance with global standards, the nation’s lacklustre pledges signify a careful, deliberative, and sincere approach to climate policy.
“Energy experts have likened shifting away from a fossil fuel economy, as China has pledged to do by 2060, to turning a giant ship: It must overcome significant inertia before generating sufficient momentum in the other direction,” said Angel Hsu, professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina, in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “And China’s ship is still turning.”