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Is China an overrated climate champion?

Hans Spross
November 13, 2017

As Trump's America takes a back seat over climate action, China is expected to take on a lead role in shaping global policies to tackle carbon emissions and promote renewables. Beijing's climate record, though, is mixed.

Deutschland Bonn COP23 Chinesische Pavillon
Image: DW/M. Cui

During the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping made common cause with then US President Barack Obama to combat the threat of global climate change. As part of the deal the two leaders struck, China agreed to sharply curb its carbon emissions. Ever since, climate activists worldwide have increasingly pinned their hopes on Beijing's action to achieve this goal and bring about an energy transition.

As a result, every "climate-friendly" statement issued by top Chinese politicians and every assertion about the expansion of renewable energy capacity is met by the international community with cheers and excitement.

Putting an end to fossil fuels?

In fact, China has an impressive record when it comes to renewables. Still, that does not change another fact that coal continues to dominate the Chinese energy sector and this seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, according to Energy Brainpool, a consulting firm.

The 80 percent year-on-year increase in solar power generation capacity in 2016 is remarkable, but the proportion of it in China's energy mix remains modest, with solar accounting for just one percent of the Asian giant's total power production. Similarly, wind power recorded growth of about 18 percent last year, but had a share of just four percent in the total energy mix.

Over 65 percent of China's electricity is still generated by coal-fired power plants.

"The incredible growth of renewable energy in China is certainly impressive, but the challenges are no less immense, and transforming a power system with a 1,000 GW of thermal generation capacity, most of it coal-fired, requires tremendous effort," wrote Energy Brainpool experts in a blog.

Smog drives leadership to action

In his speech during the Chinese Communist Party congress, President Xi used the word "environment" and other related terms 89 times while reference to the "economy" was made only about 70 times, counted Bloomberg. In a bid to combat the unbearable air pollution engulfing the country's major cities, Chinese leaders have been even willing to take measures that might hurt profitability of certain business sectors.

China Smog in Zhengzhou
Chinese authorities have been striving to combat the unbearable air pollution engulfing the country's major citiesImage: Getty Images/VCG

At this year's Canton Fair, China's largest export fair, it was not uncommon to hear complaints by small- and medium-sized companies about higher costs due to stricter environmental regulations.

As part of their anti-smog campaign, authorities have also ordered producers of steel, cement and aluminum, among others, in numerous cities in northern China to slash output during winter months.

These selective measures against smog and a massive expansion of renewable energy capacity are, however, not enough to speak of an energy transition in China. It is still unclear how effective steps such as the setting up of a carbon market and emissions trading scheme will be in reducing Chinese greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Observers say China's planned scheme still faces problems and needs further improvements before coming into effect.

Read more: Climate change: How local politicians fight global warming

Criticism of Chinese coal exports

Most climate experts believe governments worldwide have to act immediately to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. This sense of urgency also contributes to sharp criticism of Chinese exports of coal power technology to other countries.

Over the last two years, China has become the world's biggest foreign investor in renewable energy. But at the same time, it has also pumped money into building coal-fired power plants in other countries. This investment in foreign coal projects "is inconsistent at least with Beijing's stated global climate change policy and commitments," wrote Frank Umbach, research director at the London-based European Center for Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS), in Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Solarindustrie in China
The increase in China's solar power generation capacity in 2016 is remarkable, but its proportion overall remains modestImage: picture alliance/Zumapress

According to the Berlin-based environmental initiative "Urgewald," the 120 largest companies in the coal power sector worldwide plan to install new coal-fired power plants with a capacity of 550 gigawatts. Chinese state-controlled firms and private companies account for almost half of this additional capacity, the NGO said.

"If the Chinese government really wants to become a global leader in taking action against climate change, it must urgently intervene and stop these state-controlled companies that want to flood the world with new coal-fired power plants," said Trusha Reddy, coordinator of the International Coal Network, an NGO.

Pakistan's case

A good example of how Chinese coal investment flows abroad is Pakistan. The biggest chunk of China's multibillion-dollar investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project goes into the construction of power plants, including mostly coal-fired ones.

Thanks to these projects, Pakistan's currently low installed thermal generation capacity of 190 megawatts (MW) is expected to see an enormous rise to more than 15,000 MW.

China is not imposing coal power on Pakistanis, but is only exploiting their predicament, Abid Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad, told DW.

Symbolbild - Kohlekraftwerk China
Over 65 percent of China's electricity is still generated by coal-fired power plantsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Pakistan's current civilian government has promised to tackle the country's acute power crisis and provide people with reliable electricity. To achieve this, though, there is currently no alternative to coal," Suleri underlined.

Foreign policy factors favor coal

The energy expert says although there are alternatives to coal, they are complicated by foreign policy calculations. Plans to build gas pipelines involving Iran, India and Afghanistan have repeatedly failed due to various political and security issues as well as US-imposed sanctions against Pakistan.

Washington has also refused to deliver civilian nuclear technology to Islamabad, Suleri noted, adding that Pakistan is also reaching its limits when it comes to hydropower due to the increasing usage of water for agriculture.

As far as other renewable sources are concerned, their nationwide expansion has so far not proven to be attractive enough to investors, the researcher said.

Nevertheless, he pointed out that the Pakistani government could have done more to promote the individual use of solar energy by people, by offering them the possibility to sell unused electricity.

At any rate, climate change is not high on the agenda of Pakistani voters and offering a credible environmental plan doesn't get a political party far at the ballot box. This state of affairs is perfect for China as it allows Beijing to profitably transfer its excess capacities abroad, Suleri argued. "It's a win-win situation for both sides, although not for the environment."

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