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Two China experts on whether the world's largest emitter of CO2 can and will turn the tide

  • Written by  Ma Jun, Steve Tsang
  • Published in Climate
Sales of electric vehicles are surging in China – they made up ten per cent of total auto sales in January–July 2021. Here, an electric vehicle is tested in a specially designed laboratory in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province Sales of electric vehicles are surging in China – they made up ten per cent of total auto sales in January–July 2021. Here, an electric vehicle is tested in a specially designed laboratory in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province
29 Oct
Will China's climate pledges be enough to achieve Xi Jinping's vision of a 'beautiful, green China'?

As the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, what China does in regard to climate change matters to every person on the planet. And there are positive signs. In September 2020, President Xi Jinping pledged to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2060. In another hugely significant move, he announced in September 2021 that China won’t build new coal-fired projects abroad. It had previously been funding coal projects in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, its huge infrastructure project. On the other hand, the country itself is still heavily reliant on coal for energy and any pledges it makes are likely to live or die on the success of its economy – certainly not a sure thing. We talked to two China experts to find out more

Ma Jun 1

Ma Jun has spent more than two decades as one of China’s top environmental campaigners. He’s currently a director at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a dynamic NGO that, among things, monitors the CO2 emissions of Chinese companies and provinces. Chinese NGOs aren’t entirely free from state censorship and criticising the ruling party is largely impossible, but action can still be taken at the local level.

‘The environmental movement started burgeoning more than 20 years ago in China. The pollution really started to teach the hard lessons. One watershed moment was the smog that struck Beijing ten years ago. At that time, millions of citizens made their voices heard on social media and, eventually, the government decided to initiate a mass-scale clean-air action plan. This set the stage for China to take a more proactive position on the climate issue. Air pollution comes from very similar sources as carbon emissions – it’s the fossil fuels, it’s the coal.

For quite a long time, the climate situation was somewhat different. In 2009, in Copenhagen [COP15], China had a very firm position of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, insisting that the West first deal with its historic emission impacts. That position has changed. I think in many ways, it was the people’s voice on local air pollution that opened up new possibilities for China to join the global climate movement.

China is on its way to fulfilling its commitments under the Paris Agreement, but that’s not enough. The question is how to tackle that. Many local regions want to relax environmental controls in order to hedge against global economic uncertainty. As a result, we have again seen a picking up of China’s coal consumption and a rebound of carbon emissions. That’s why the carbon-neutrality pledge by Xi Jinping came at a critical moment. It contributes to global solidarity, which is very important. That solidarity was very much hurt by the top administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement [the USA withdrew under Donald Trump; it has since rejoined]. At that time, not just the USA, but many other Western countries lost confidence, so they didn’t make ambitious commitments. But now it’s a whole different situation. A real global race to zero has emerged.

The pledge has been made; the implementation will be highly challenging. We still have an energy consumption that is highly dependent on coal. We’re still the factory of the world, with a lot of heavy-duty manufacturing. I believe we can only do it with extensive public participation from multiple stakeholders and the first step is access to information. Last year, we launched the zero-carbon map. We colour-coded all the provinces and cities according to their level of carbon emissions. During the process, we also identified a major gap for businesses – most lack the capacity to measure and report their carbon emissions. So we developed a digital platform to help businesses conveniently measure and disclose their emissions. Thousands of businesses have started to use the tool, to measure and to report. So far, we are tracking some nine million factories and companies. They have been motivated not just by the NGOs, but also by major global and local brands who use our data to track the performance of their supply chain in China. Some of the largest brands, including Apple, Dell, Levi’s and Adidas, all require their suppliers to disclose their local carbon emissions.

We need to make sure that China’s national ambitions are clearly distributed locally, down to the provinces and then the cities and then to the carbon-intensive industries. We need to get started.’

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Official photo

Steve Tsang is the director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS University London

‘Until relatively recently, China was building more coal-fired power plants than the rest of the world put together. Now it’s beginning to scale down because recipient countries are saying that they don’t want them, because they’re not economically viable. So they do change, they do respond to pressure. But they won’t cave in. They will only do it on their own terms, not terms set by COP, or Washington, or anywhere.

They are serious about climate change. They absolutely want to do something about it; Xi Jinping talks about a beautiful China, which is a green China. But the bottom line for Xi Jinping and the party is not actually climate change – it’s not anywhere near the top of the political agenda. The most important thing is keeping the Communist Party in power. China takes part in the big climate conferences not because of climate change, but because having an impact at these global mega-events means that China is now a top-tier power.

China might still transition to renewables – provided the economy can afford it. But if the Chinese economy doesn’t grow at the current rate, and if it can’t afford to make that transformation promise for 2060 – then it won’t happen.

Climate change affects us all. We know that in the back of our mind. But there are more traditional, old-fashioned geopolitics, too. There are countries that no longer see it as being in their interest to help the Chinese sustain that level of growth, which most of the Western economies have essentially been doing for the past 40 years of China’s economic miracle. That’s changing, and a lot of countries are becoming uncomfortable. Not only is the USA uncomfortable, but also the EU, Japan; Australia is extremely uncomfortable, so is Canada, so is Southeast Asia, which means we won’t necessarily all focus on climate change.

China argues that the middle income trap [in which a country that attains a certain income gets stuck at that level] doesn’t apply to it. As an academic, I would say the middle income trap applies to China as much as it did to all the 80 or 90 middle-income countries we have in the world. And since the end of the Second World War, only about 14 to 15 of them have come out of it successfully. Whether China will is an open question. There’s a lot to be said that it may not.

Th ose arguments are completely dismissed by the Chinese government. Th ey believe that their economy will sustain a very fast rate of growth. Th ey believe they are going to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in a matter of years. On those assumptions, then the net zero promise for 2060 is a relatively modest timetable. But if you’re talking about the economy at the actual scale of China’s economic maturity – then, it is ambitious.’

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