The last two weeks has seen a flurry of climate diplomacy. China has held high level talks with the other BASIC nations (Brazil, South Africa and India), as well as with France and Germany, and with the US.
After Chinese and US climate envoys met in Shanghai, President Xi Jinping accepted an invitation to a US-hosted Leaders’ Summit on Climate, marking a post-Trump reboot of climate diplomacy between the two powers.
During these talks, China made further commitments on coal consumption and non-CO2 greenhouse gases, in response to calls for the country to boost its climate ambition.
Clamping down on coal
After four years of constant antagonism and friction, China and the US are back at the table for climate talks.
On Earth Day, 22 April, Xi Jinping was the first foreign leader to speak at President Biden’s climate summit. He used the time primarily to reiterate climate commitments made over the past year.
But he did announce strict new controls on coal power, with restrictions on growth in coal consumption for the 14th Five Year Plan period (2021–25) and gradual reductions for the 15th FYP (2026–30). He also revealed China is drafting an action plan for reaching peak carbon, to meet last year’s commitments to a 2030 carbon peak and 2060 carbon neutrality, with support for regions, industries and companies to peak early where feasible.
Responding indirectly to calls for China to boost its actions to reach peak carbon earlier, Xi said: “China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than [it] might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinarily hard efforts from China.” A week earlier, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Yu Lecheng was more direct, describing those calls as akin to expecting elementary and middle school students to graduate at the same time. He added China and the developed nations are at different stages of responding to climate change and that China has already set extraordinary targets.
Research by Chinese and overseas academics recently published in Science magazine found that China’s carbon neutrality target is broadly in line with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming within 1.5C, but achieving that goal will require deep emissions cuts in the short-term, with emissions to fall 90% compared with a “no policy” scenario by 2050, and demand for coal to drop to near zero.
Controlling coal is crucial to these efforts, with the country accounting for one half of global coal consumption. Outside of China, coal power capacity seems to have peaked in 2018. But according to a briefingfrom Greenpeace, China has approved 144.8 gigawatts of coal power over the past five years, with one third of the approvals occurring in 2020.
For years, China has been working to avoid potential coal power overcapacityand to limit coal power generation in order to improve air quality. But this is the first time it has made an international commitment on the matter. Barbara Finamore, Asia senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said Xi’s commitments were encouraging, and China should now “lay out detailed sectoral five-year plans that (1) halt the construction of new coal plants, (2) adopt a reasonable timetable for the retirement of existing plants, and (3) set absolute caps on coal consumption and CO2 emissions.”
Some Chinese experts have suggested a cap on coal power capacity of 1,100 gigawatts by 2025. This is close to the capacity at the end of 2020, meaning any new coal power plants coming online would require other facilities to be retired. In 2014, the government delegated responsibility for approving new coal power plants to local governments, which in some cases responded by using that new power to boost their economies. Dr Yang Fuqiang, a research fellow at Peking University’s Research Institute for Energy, suggests the central government reclaims that power, or “strict controls will be difficult.” But he also stressed there is no need to focus solely on new coal power capacity, as capacity does not automatically translate into coal consumption. The sector did not breach limits on coal consumption during the 13th FYP, although there is a greatly increased risk of new capacity becoming stranded assets, he added.
At a press briefing after Xi’s speech, organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Su Wei, deputy secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said that China had sent explicit signals of its intent to cut coal consumption and that non-fossil energy sources would be favoured for meeting new electricity demand. In March, China proposed for the first time creating an electricity system built around renewables. Su explained that coal power will be used to ensure stability of that system and regulate output from renewables.
China and the US, back at the table
Xi’s speech also welcomed the US return to multilateral climate governance. A week before the summit, the two nation’s climate envoys, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, had met in Shanghai and published a joint statement. The English-language edition of the Global Times described this as a new form of “ping-pong diplomacy”, referring to the 1972 visit of President Nixon to China less than a year after a group of American table tennis players had toured.
During the Obama administration, China and the US issued joint statements on climate change in 2014, 2015 and 2016, formed the US–China Climate Change Working Group and put ministerial-level communication channels in place. But the Trump presidency saw the two nations at loggerheads, with high-level climate talks coming to an abrupt halt.
The diminished trust is still evident. John Kerry has said on a number of occasions that China and the US have many differences, but that “we can’t be the prisoners of all of these differences.” However, back in January, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that climate change would not become a special case and would remain tied up with the overall relationship between China and the US.
“This is a difficult stage,” said Zou Ji, CEO and President of Energy Foundation China. “There will always be friction in diplomacy, but basic trust must be maintained. Only then can step-by-step progress be made and, with deeper cooperation, relations stabilised.”
Carbon emissions from China and the US account for 40% of the global total. According to the Emissions Gap Report 2020 a lack of ambitious action has significantly increased the difficulty of achieving Paris Agreement goals. But both China and the US are now working under the Paris Agreement framework and have committed to net zero emissions, providing a basis for cooperation. Zou hopes geopolitical complications will be set aside and there will be substantive cooperation on climate change.
In the China–US joint statement, both nations committed to expanding overseas investment and supporting developing nations transitioning to renewables. There have long been calls for China to halt overseas investments in carbon-intensive projects such as coal power, but the statements and speeches of the last week have not provided more clarity on China’s action plan beyond the joint statement.
Better controls of non-CO2 greenhouse gases
On 16 April, during talks with France and Germany, China said it would ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would see stronger controls on non-CO2 greenhouse gases such as HFCs.
That amendment aims to cut global use of 18 HFCs by 80% over the coming decades. These gases are widely used in refrigeration applications, such as air conditioning, as alternatives to ozone-depleting CFCs. Unfortunately, HFCs have thousands of times as much warming potential as carbon dioxide.
Hu Jianxin, a professor at Peking University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, told China Dialogue that China accounts for 20% of global HFC emissions. While this is roughly equivalent to emissions from the EU and US, China’s use and emissions of these gases is rapidly increasing. In 2019, the country accounted for 60% of global HFC production, the equivalent of one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. According to the Kigali Amendment, China should see peak production and consumption in 2024, with a 10% fall on that baseline by 2029. But, due to the lifespan of products, on that timetable emissions will peak after 2030, at the equivalent of over 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. (China’s annual carbon emissions are around 10 billion tonnes.)
China signed the Kigali Amendment in 2016, but is yet to ratifiy, meaning it has no legal force. Hu says China has been getting ready to implement the amendment and has now made a commitment on controls of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, a strategic choice which will “boost global progress on cutting HFC emissions.”
In the outline of the 14th FYP, which was approved in March, China indicated it would boost restrictions on non-CO2 greenhouse gases. According to Zou Ji, emissions of those gases account for 30% of total emissions, but making reductions is harder than it is for carbon dioxide. There are many opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation here, he added.