While China talks a good game on climate change, for the Chinese Communist Party, staying in power is its highest priority.
President Xi Jinping recently told the UN General Assembly that China aims for carbon neutrality by 2060, in addition to its previous target to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030 which it promised for the 2015 Paris Agreement. The global press greeted this announcement with enthusiasm, with headlines exclaiming “an unexpectedly forthright pledge to galvanize global action against the climate crisis”, “a significant step in the fight against climate change”, “an audacious bid to lead the world into a low carbon future”, and so on. The Guardian gushed that China “will give fresh impetus to UN efforts to galvanize action on the ‘climate crisis’”.
Credulous Western environmentalists and government officials expect China to play a lead role in “combating” climate change, especially since President Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. Less credulous and hard-bitten China observers may be somewhat more reserved in their judgements of China’s official statements of international diplomacy. China’s trumpeted plans to reduce reliance on coal, however, conflict with data showing consumption and production trending up not down.
China’s annual carbon dioxide emissions nearly tripled between 2000 and 2019, and now account for just under 30% of total global emissions which makes the country the largest emitter by far. The US, the second largest emitter, accounts for 14.5% of global emissions while India, the third largest, contributes 7.3%.
After some reduction in coal demand for a few years, China’s demand increased from 2016 to 2019 by 3.3%, and its demand climbed in June this year to near its peak levels in 2013. In the first half of 2020 China approved 23 gigawatts-worth of new coal power projects, more than the previous two years combined; in 2018 and in 2019, China commissioned more coal power than the rest of the world combined.
As the single largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions, China would be expected to be under intense international pressure to reduce them. But the country has a deft hand at international diplomacy. From the earliest negotiations in the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) beginning in 1994, the country has positioned itself as the defender of “Third World” interests, along with other large developing countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia.
The Kyoto Protocol, brought into force in 2005, established a two track system whereby the developed “Annex 1” countries adopted binding emission commitments while the developing “non-Annex 1” countries not only had no such commitments but were expected to be recipients of “climate finance” aid from the Annex 1 group for assistance in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Thereby, climate policy goals effectively got converted into an exercise in massive international income re-distribution. As German economist and UN climate policy official Ottmar Edenhofer said in 2010, “Climate policy has almost nothing to do anymore with environmental protection. The next world climate summit in Cancun is actually an economy summit during which the distribution of the world’s resources will be negotiated.”