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China’s climate actions leave a lot to be desired

January 23, 2020

China is on track to meet its Paris Agreement climate targets but that’s not enough to save the planet. Experts in Davos say the world’s biggest polluter must do more and ensure it does not slack amid a slowing economy.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask against air pollution walks on a footbridge in heavy smog in Beijing
Image: picture-alliance/Imaginechina/Xiao Ma

During the winters of 2018, when Beijing's sky took on a blue hue, its residents could hardly believe it. It was a pleasant surprise for them who had resigned to the Chinese capital's toxic smog.

The blue skies meant the government's antipollution drive – prompted in part by massive public anger – was showing results.

It was the latest in a series of measures taken by Beijing over the years to boost its green credentials by cutting down emissions. These measures have seen China — the world's largest polluter — emerge as the world leader in renewable energy output as well as related technologies such as lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles.

 "China really deserves enormous credit for making very important progress in the last 20 years to reduce pollution, to advance clean energy and energy efficiency and to show leadership on climate change at a time of really tremendous economic growth that lifted millions of people out of poverty," Charlotte Pera of the ClimateWorks Foundation said in Davos during the World Economic Forum.

China is on track to meet its commitments made under the Paris Agreement, which includes a pledge to bring emissions to a peak by 2030. A senior government researcher said in September last year that the country could reach the goal as early as 2022 without even introducing tougher policies.

An infographic showing urban and rural carbon emissions in China

Economic woes holding back Beijing

Experts say while China's climate actions are encouraging, they are not enough and that the country – the largest carbon emitter by far - must increase its commitments to curb emissions by at least three times.

The German government-backed Climate Action Tracker classifies the current Chinese commitment as "highly insufficient," which means that if all government targets fell in this category then the planet would be warmer by between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius, way above the Paris Agreement's target of 2 degrees.

China — the largest producer and consumer of coal by a distance — has indicated that it intends to strengthen its commitments made under the Paris Agreement but has so far not committed to it amid a slowing economy, hurt in part by strict environmental regulations.

"It's quite complicated now to balance the economy and environmental protection in China. So we [China] are not short on challenges," Ma Jun, founder of Beijing-based NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told DW.

Ma said local governments have been pleading with Beijing to relax some of the environmental norms in a bid to get their economies back on track. He also said since last year the country has been witnessing a rebound in carbon-intensive production and an increase in coal consumption, which has somewhat plateaued in the past 5 years.

An infographic comparing China's coal consumption vs the rest of the world

The BRI conundrum

China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — a gargantuan global infrastructure development project mostly backed by Beijing — has also left environmentalists concerned. The colossal project involves setting up coal plants, building power stations, mines and factories across 70 countries, many of them with poor environmental oversight.

Climate change expert and leading economist Nicholas Stern put the concerns in perspective: "You just look at the numbers. China is close to a quarter of the world's emissions and the Belt and Road countries are at least two times the population of China, they have income per capita about half that of China. In 20 years, they would have income per capita equal to China's,” he said. "So, that's two more Chinas in terms of income in 20 years, outside China. If they have emissions that look like China has now, then 3 degrees Celsius is dead and buried."

Stern said China must stop supporting coal-based investments Belt and Road countries if it was serious about its commitment to green the project.

Firm commitment?

China is working on its 14th 5-year plan, covering 2021-2015. Environmentalists are hoping that Beijing makes tougher policies related to climate change and the BRI.

"What would China's ramp-up of ambitions look like, because China would look to ramp up, it promised to do that in Paris and China keeps its promises. It's very important that that promise is to peak emissions during the 14th plan that means by 2025," Stern said. "Saying so in the 14th plan is absolutely critical because that goes into Chinese Law. That's the way in which the Chinese leadership is judged."

Ma is not convinced the government would actually do so. He says the government has a different priority at this point in time: stabilizing the economy.

Portrait photo of Ashutosh Pandey wearing a blue collared shirt and a navy-blue blazer
Ashutosh Pandey Business editor with a focus on international trade, financial markets and the energy sector.@ashutoshpande85