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Why the world underestimates China’s climate action at its peril

Behind the scenes, China is slowly transitioning to a clean energy economy; the EU and the US should acknowledge this.

By Bernice Lee

It has been almost too easy for the world’s major developed economies to dismiss China as a climate villain. Even though China is breaking records when it comes to renewable energy and electric vehicles, it cannot shake the image of choking smog, thick-set coal chimneys and vast mines.

This is not surprising. The world’s most populous country remains inextricably linked to coal, which supplies around 56 per cent of its power and employs millions in power plants, transport and mines. At a time when global gas prices are soaring, China’s coal reserves and reliance on this polluting form of energy might appear well judged, even prescient, to the less climate-minded.

The ties between coal and China run deep: President Xi Jinping was pictured walking among coal reserves ahead of the Chinese New Year, making it easy to forget that China has world record numbers when it comes to renewable production and deployment. The Chinese government’s diplomatic moves also make it easy for the international community to dismiss its track record. At the Cop26 climate summit, Beijing pushed back on “phasing out” coal, instead allying with India and agreeing to “phasing down”. In reality, to phase out coal without a date is the same as phasing down, but the Chinese government was playing to a different audience rather than the world stage. This approach, combined with the news that China’s coal use has risen to 2013 levels – often assumed to be its peak year – reinforces the impression that the country is ignoring the climate crisis.

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the nation needs to move faster in reducing its emissions. Chinese officials, however, frequently push back through state-backed media channels against calls for Beijing to increase its efforts.

Over the next few months the UN, G7 and US-China meetings will take place. China’s overall targets have not changed beyond President Xi’s pledge to hit carbon neutrality by 2060 and the coal industry still dominates. However, the Chinese government is laying foundations for a new, flexible and dispersed power grid – light years away from the current province-centred and coal-designed network. Political guidelines from Beijing to provincial leaders – who wield not insignificant power and resolve when it comes to the energy mix – released in 2022 point to a “unified energy market” mandating investments in energy storage, critical to making full use of wind, solar and hydro power. Allied to a goal to cut the cost per unit of battery storage by 30 per cent in five years, experts believe this – and new hi-tech power lines – will allow better sharing across regions as China heads towards a 2030 clean power target of 1,200 gigawatts. By 2025, China’s wind and solar capacity could hit 1,100 gigawatts shows analysis by Carbon Brief, double that of 2020. For context, current grid capacity is 2,300 gigawatts.

This spring we saw recommendations for the chemical and petrochemical industries, emphasising the need for low carbon development of these jobs-rich sectors. Goals for the sectors – which emit 14 per cent of China’s total emissions – include “green, safe and low-carbon” industrial development, with tougher restrictions on embodied carbon. “More ambitious emissions abatement measures are anticipated from the government, so as to accelerate the decarbonisation progress of the related industries,” said Oceana Zhou, from S&P Global Commodity Insights.

That’s at home. Globally, China is finally clamping down on the rampant coal investments its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was responsible for in its formative years – making it the world’s largest overseas funder of coal. In March 2022, four leading agencies – led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – confirmed no new coal plants will be built under the BRI and announced a pivot to “green” infrastructure projects in power and transportation, industry and manufacturing. The proof will be in delivery, and the world will be watching, but this represents progress.

Beset by surging Covid rates at home and in a year where Xi seeks to confirm his stay at the top of government, climate is unlikely to dominate Chinese government announcements. In the face of mounting pressure from the West on its emissions, expect Beijing to double down and not offer any morsels to green campaigners: this is not the style of an administration that has insisted on moving at its own pace and believes that a culture of target setting without clear timelines to hit goals can be counter-productive.

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In the wake of three brutal IPCC climate science reports, mounting climate impacts and a closing 1.5C window, this is probably not what the world wants to hear. But as ever with China, a country with a rich history and an even deeper memory, the key is to look beyond the headlines and understand what’s happening on the ground. China could do us all a favour and explain its progress on wind, solar and EVs a little more, but until it does so, we all need to try a little harder to understand what’s going on in the world’s second largest economy. If we don’t, climate diplomacy will be more difficult with China less likely inclined to engage with Europe and the US; a scenario that puts us all in greater danger from extreme climate change.

Bernice Lee is research director, futures, at Chatham House.

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