China on Climate: Friend or Foe?
- In a surprise announcement at the UN, President Xi Jinping outlined China’s clean energy ambitions, declaring that the world’s most populous country will reach “peak carbon” before 2030 and net zero carbon emissions by 2060. China’s pledge came less than an hour after President Trump slammed China’s environmental record on the virtual UN Assembly floor, despite having repeatedly called climate change a “hoax” and pulling the US from the Paris Climate Accords. Xi’s move was especially bold given that China was expected to wait until the outcome of the US election in November, which will determine the US’ climate posture for the next four years, before announcing its own plans to meet the Paris Accords.
- China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon, contributing 27% to global total of greenhouse gases every year. In one three-year period (2011–2013), China consumed more cement than the United States did in the entire 20th century. China has 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of operating coal plants and another 250 gigawatts under construction, more than the rest of the world combined. Meeting Xi’s carbon pledge would require China to stop construction of new plants and cut back existing coal power production by 40–50%. China’s population of 1.4 billion, which emits 7 tons of carbon per capita annually (vs 16.5 tons per capita in the US), will continue to demand more goods and services that emit carbon, especially its increasingly consumptive 400 million strong middle class.
- While China is a leader in coal consumption and carbon emissions, it is also the world’s largest producer of renewable energy equipment and inputs, producing 72% of the world’s solar modules, 69% of its lithium ion batteries, 45% of its wind turbines and 95% of the rare earth metals required for batteries and turbines. In addition to producing wind turbines and solar panels, China has the largest renewable energy market in the world (728 GW of renewable power production vs 260 GW in the US). China also has the world’s largest electric vehicle fleet, with 1 million EVs sold in 2019 (double US EV sales), and is been a global innovator in renewable technology, helping drive up productivity and push down installation costs across the board for all types of renewable technology.
- Is there a short-term geopolitical rationale behind Xi’s pledge or is China finally for real on climate? Xi did not give an exact roadmap for his plans to get to net zero carbon by 2060 but whatever it is, it will almost certainly involve massive installations of wind and solar, large scale adoption of electric vehicles, drastic cutbacks in coal consumption, expansion of nuclear and hydro and a tax on carbon. The Communist Chinese government does in part derive its authority from a population that believes it will deliver on the essential necessities of daily life, and increased disruptions from storms and droughts could threaten this relationship. So, Xi’s promises could be genuine, plus some analysts believe China stands to gain economically by going green as it would involve trillions invested in its renewable technology sector (which will in turn benefit the rest of the world) while reducing the cost of fossil fuel imports.
- Many US conservatives that believe in climate change rationalize inaction on climate because China’s relentless coal-powered growth will render US climate policies meaningless for the planet. If Xi plans to move forward with his plan in earnest, the US will have a powerful ally in the climate fight and, along with a climate keen Europe, will be able to force real change. There will be no reason for the US to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the world does the hard work of attempting to save the planet.