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26 April 2021

Why it’s in China’s own interests to cut emissions faster

The rising superpower is particularly vulnerable to the consequences of runaway climate change.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

Earth Day (22 April) was a moment for world leaders and campaigners alike to reflect on the road to COP26. The biggest climate event since the Paris Agreement of 2015, the summit will take place in Glasgow in November and will (it is hoped) see governments make newly ambitious commitments to interim emissions reductions bending the trajectory of global temperature rises closer to 2 degrees and, ideally, 1.5 degrees. 

It is, then, a good moment to reflect on China’s climate policies. The rising superpower is responsible for almost a third of all global greenhouse gas emissions (twice as much as the US, the second-largest emitter) and about half of all coal burned. Last year Xi Jinping committed it to falling emissions before 2030 and net-zero by 2060. Yet for now Beijing is alarmingly vague on how it plans to make progress in the immediate future. At the international climate summit hosted by Joe Biden this week, Xi said China would only begin to phase out its coal use in 2026.

Western governments want China to do more, quicker; for example, move its deadline for falling emissions forward from 2030 to 2025. But they seem divided on the best way to do so. Some, most notably Germany, France and much of the EU leadership, tend to the view that deepening economic engagement and sometimes keeping quiet about awkward subjects such as human rights can help coax China into going green faster. Others, most notably the US and to some extent the UK and Japan, tend to see less of a trade-off between geopolitical toughness and climate cooperation.

Recent weeks have illustrated the distinct approaches. Take last Friday, 16 April. John Kerry, the White House climate envoy who had said that “none of those [geopolitical] issues will be traded for anything that has to do with climate”, was in China talking emissions. Back in Washington, Joe Biden was talking Chinese naval aggression, Xinjiang and Taiwan with Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga. On the same day, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel held a video conference with Xi Jinping to discuss climate issues in which human rights – to judge by the readouts and the approving write-ups in the Chinese state media – barely came up and recent Chinese sanctions on European diplomats and politicians were not mentioned at all. 

There is overlap between the two approaches. The US and the EU both agree that climate issues should be cordoned off from wider geopolitical issues in talks with China. But where some major EU leaders and officials ultimately believe that climate cooperation requires a degree of détente and diplomatic tongue-biting, the US and its fellow travellers broadly do not. 

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Which is right? It really depends on your view of how invested Beijing is in decarbonisation. If you take the view that China, as a mid-income country aspiring to reach Western living standards, will never play a leading role in cutting emissions without extensive diplomatic and economic inducement, then the continental European method makes more sense. But if you think that China has its own good reasons to fear climate change and embrace decarbonisation, then the US-led approach does. 

The facts, as I see them, lend greater credibility to the latter. Here are five reasons why it is in the China leadership’s own interests to cut emissions faster. 

1. China is at particular risk from runaway climate change. Its economic centres are disproportionately concentrated along its low, long and densely populated coasts and delta regions threatened by rising sea levels. Even with a two-degree global temperature rise, for example, much of central Shanghai would be underwater. Record floods last summer – affecting almost 70 million people and causing at least $29bn of damage – were merely a foretaste of what is to come. Particularly for a political party that intends to stay in power for decades to come, that’s a pressing concern. 

2. Air pollution in China’s cities is a major problem. Caused by dirty industries including coal-fired power plants, it represents both a public-health disaster and a challenge to the Communist Party’s narrative about progress and prosperity. It is a rallying point for dissent.

3. China’s reliance on fossil fuel imports is a geopolitical vulnerability. It is the world’s biggest oil and gas importer and its oil imports in particular could be easily disrupted. As a new paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, “an overwhelming majority of [China’s oil] comes through the Strait of Malacca, a geopolitical chokepoint that could be crucial in a military escalation of US-China tension”.

4. Dirty is expensive. Some 70 per cent of China’s coal-power capacity costs more to run than new renewable equivalents. A report released last week finds that it could save $1.6trn over 20 years (equivalent to almost half its current defence budget every year) by switching to zero-carbon energy sources.

5. China has a huge competitive advantage in renewable energies. It leads the world in the production of solar panels and wind turbines and also is home to a disproportionately large share of rare earth minerals, such as neodymium and lithium, needed for clean energy and mobility. The faster it rolls these out at home and expands production the more it can exploit that advantage.

Does China recognise the above points? Probably, which is why it has been investing so much in its green industries and moved last year to make its first commitment to net-zero. I suspect that Xi and his ministers are willing to go much farther and faster on emissions reductions, for the above reasons and others, but are not acknowledging as much yet as they want to extract the maximum diplomatic capital from doing so. 

If this is right, it would not only suggest that the US-led approach – of working with China on climate action but not compromising on other issues in order to do so – is the right one. And that the Europeans are sacrificing valuable political and diplomatic capital to get China’s leaders to do something they may well want to do anyway.