Climate

China at COP26: Coal, 1.5C and short-term actions

China’s commitments and reservations at the climate talks in Glasgow reflect the unique challenges and possibilities the country faces in its pursuit of peak carbon
China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua speaking at press briefing session on the joint China-US declaration on enhancing climate action, during the COP26 climate conference (Image: Jeff J Mitchell / Alamy)
China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua speaking at press briefing session on the joint China-US declaration on enhancing climate action, during the COP26 climate conference (Image: Jeff J Mitchell / Alamy)

At the final session of COP26 in Glasgow on 13 November, a last-minute change in language to the coal power part of the agreed text replaced “phase-out” with “phase-down”. With no explicit objections from signatories, COP26 President Alok Sharma banged down his gavel. The change was adopted and the Glasgow Climate Pact passed. The hall broke out in applause.

The mood, however, could not compare with the cheers in Paris in 2015, or when Michael Kurtyka, president of COP24, jumped for joy in Katowice in 2018. History will recall that this conference, billed as the last chance to stop climate change, achieved progress rather than success. The three pillars of the Paris Agreement – climate change mitigation, adaptation and financing – were all strengthened, and Glasgow’s clarifications on carbon markets and transparency frameworks, which were leftover issues from Paris, mean the Paris rulebook is now complete and can be fully implemented. But Glasgow’s maintenance of the delicate balance between the different camps means nobody is going home happy.

More importantly, the last-minute change blocked the UK hosts’ goal of a target for phasing out coal power. The UK was successful in retaining the goal of keeping a 1.5C warming limit (as of the end of this century, compared with a pre-industrial baseline) “within reach” – but it’s still unclear how the world will get there. That huge issue is now left to COP27, to be held next year in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. As Sharma said: “The 1.5C goal remains within reach, but its pulse is weak.”

China played a critical role in changing the language on coal power, but that was by no means its only contribution in Glasgow. On 11 November, the China–US Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s came as a welcome surprise to all. It proved increasing tensions between the two nations need not prevent progress on climate change, and served as a reminder of the two China–US joint statements that provided impetus to the Paris Agreement. There were hopes the new declaration would do the same for Glasgow. China also accepted two of the most important points in the Glasgow Climate Pact: a reaffirmation of the 1.5C warming goal, and the targeting of fossil fuels – a first for an official UN climate change conference. Prior to the conference, there had been widespread concerns China would object to both those points.

China also signed up to two important political statements: the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, and the Breakthrough Agenda. The first aims to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”. China is a major importer of deforestation-risk commodities such as timber products, soy and palm oil, so its signature is significant and indicates a willingness to participate in global governance of these issues. The second document aims to significantly reduce the cost of renewable energy by 2030 and encourage its use worldwide. That aligns with China’s commitments to support green and low-carbon energy in developing nations, and to halt construction of coal power plants overseas, which it made at the UN General Assembly in September. However, China did not sign up to a widely supported agreement setting end dates for the construction of new “unabated” coal power plants – meaning those not fitted with carbon capture and storage tech.

The China–US declaration

One reason the China–US Joint Glasgow Declaration came as a welcome surprise was the contrast it made with the atmosphere at the start of the conference, when both US President Biden and former president Obama criticised Chinese leaders for failing to attend.

But close observers of China–US cooperation on climate change were not so surprised by the joint declaration. As China’s special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said at the announcement of the declaration, the two negotiating teams had been at work for 10 months, with two sessions in China and almost 30 online meetings. In April this year, Xie and US special climate envoy John Kerry met in Shanghai, where they issued the China–US Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis. The compartmentalisation of climate issues from other topics was widely hailed.

xie zhenhua john kerry
US climate envoy John Kerry speaks with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua at COP26 (Image: Kiara Worth/UNFCCCCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The latest joint declaration put forward positions on closely watched topics due to be decided at Glasgow: the significance of climate change adaptation and financial and capacity-building support for adaptation in developing nations; the fulfilment of a developed world commitment to give developing nations $100 billion a year between 2020 and 2025; and the completion of rules for carbon markets and transparency under the Paris Agreement. That laid a path towards significant outcomes in Glasgow.

It also covered bilateral cooperation on the energy transition, eliminating illegal deforestation and tackling methane emissions. The last of those required the most ink. The two countries agreed that, alongside bolstering cooperation on measuring and researching ways to reduce methane emissions, they would develop extra national and sub-national measures to reduce them by next year’s COP27. China said it will produce a comprehensive and ambitious national action plan on methane. Although no concrete timescale for that plan was given, Li Gao, head of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s (MEE) Department of Climate Change, said at a March workshop on methane that in 2021-2025 China will produce an action plan on controlling the gas and develop a framework for preventing methane emissions from the oil and gas, coal and waste sectors.

In September, the US and EU issued the Global Methane Pledge, promising to bring manmade methane emissions down 30% by 2030, on a 2020 baseline. During the Glasgow conference at least another 108 countries signed up to that pledge. Climate Action Tracker estimates that it will avoid the equivalent of 800 million tonnes of carbon emissions – equivalent to one-fifth of all nationally determined contributions (NDCs) so far submitted under the Paris Agreement. However, China has not signed up to that pledge. In an interview with China Environmental News, a researcher from the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC) said the US is using the pledge to shirk historical responsibilities and shift pressure to developing nations.

Fu Sha, program director of the Energy Foundation China’s Low Carbon Economic Growth Program, told China Dialogue that while China includes methane data in information submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat, such data is reported using emissions factors provided in 1996 IPCC guidelines, meaning accuracy of the data could be improved. Also, there is a lack of top-level policy and management because dealing with China’s methane emissions has long been divided up across different government departments. With the 14th Five Year Plan (2021–25) proposing tougher controls on methane and other greenhouse gases, the MEE is working on acquiring better data, and has said it will be coming up with inventory guidelines and emissions standards. Fu Sha thinks the China–US Joint Glasgow Declaration may prompt China to nominate a single ministry to take the lead on methane, working across different levels of government and setting quantified targets for reducing emissions.

Coal

Part of the UK’s vision for COP26 included a coal phase-out to help increase ambition for 2030 and keep the 1.5C goal within reach. The Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, issued during the COP, commits to ending construction of unabated coal power plants, with a phase-out of unabated coal power by 2040 or 2050, depending on the level of development of the country, and a faster roll-out of clean energy. So far, 46 nations have signed up to that statement, including 5 of the 20 biggest coal power users: South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and the Ukraine. Climate Action Tracker estimates those commitments will reduce emissions by the equivalent of 200 million tonnes of carbon. However, the coal power sector accounts for 30% of global carbon emissions and those reductions are nowhere near adequate. The world is hoping that China, the world’s biggest generator of coal power, will make its position clearer.

In a move that drew widespread praise, China’s President Xi Jinping had announced at the UN General Assembly in September that China would stop building new coal power plants overseas. Domestically, the current policy position on coal is to control growth in consumption during the 14th Five Year Plan period (2021–25), with gradual reductions in the five years after that. China saw coal consumption peak in 2013, with falls in the following three years. Since then there have been moderate rises and use of the fuel has now plateaued. Current policy does not close the space for coal consumption to rebound further in the next five years.

The power shortages several Chinese provinces suffered in October, caused by a spike in electricity demand and a lack of coal output, also affected China’s efforts to control coal use. That prompted questions from overseas concerning whether the country could maintain the pace of its emissions reductions, and speculation that China would not sign up to language on controlling fossil fuels. According to reports, during the conference, reporters attempted to ask Xie Zhenhua if China would support the section, but he avoided the question. China’s last-minute intervention to switch “phase-out” to “phase-down” tallies with its domestic policy: a gradual reduction is fine, but a commitment to phasing out coal will not come easily.

The China-US Joint Glasgow Declaration saw China reiterate an existing stance: coal consumption will be gradually reduced during the 15th Five Year Plan period (2026–30). Although there was an addition: “and make best efforts to accelerate this work.”

1.5C and near to mid-term problems

The most important part of the Paris Agreement was the consensus on keeping warming within 2C, and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5C. But neither 2C nor 1.5C are concrete thresholds in scientific terms. The 2C target was initially an idea floated by an economist that happened to be kept on as a realistic and acceptable target. The 1.5C target arose at the Copenhagen talks in 2009, proposed by small island and climate vulnerable states as necessary due to the existential risks they face.

The IPCC’s 2018 Global Warming of 1.5C report finally confirmed that neither target guarantees safety for ecosystems or human society, but that reaching the 1.5C target would lessen the impacts on ecosystems and human health and welfare. That boosted the political backing the 1.5C target received during UN climate talks.

The Glasgow Climate Pact reiterates the warming targets of the Paris Agreement, reviews the findings of the IPCC report, and “resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. However, Climate Action Tracker estimated during the second half of COP26 that the 2030 NDCs, even if fully implemented, would mean warming of 2.4C by the end of the century. Factor in additional commitments made in Glasgow, and global emissions in 2030 will still be twice those needed for the 1.5C target.

Carbon neutrality will not mean we hit the 1.5C target if there is already too much carbon in the atmosphere. The sooner emissions are cut, the better.
Fu Sha, Energy Foundation China

Climate Action Tracker also found that while longer-term carbon neutrality targets get closer to the 1.5C track, the near- to mid-term policies to reach carbon neutrality are not in place, making carbon neutrality plans less credible. There is both an emissions gap and a credibility gap.

In September last year, China said it would reach peak carbon by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. Shortly after, Professor He Jiankun of the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, who heads up a research project looking at carbon neutrality pathways, was clear: “China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target is, in fact, a long-term process of deep decarbonisation, guided by the 1.5C goal.”

According to complex, in-depth modelling carried out as part of that research project, a 2030 carbon peak will require China to make steeper emissions cuts to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, when compared with an earlier peak. That will be tough but remains doable.

Fu Sha told China Dialogue that the Energy Foundation China’s 2020 Synthesis Report on China’s Carbon Neutrality compared various 1.5C-compatible carbon neutrality pathways for China, finding the 2060 target is by no means “late”. But she pointed out the key question is how peak carbon is achieved in the near- and mid-term. She explained that there has been a scientific consensus since the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report: The amount of warming will depend on how much anthropogenic carbon accumulates in the atmosphere – not on whether humanity stops adding to those emissions at any particular time. Carbon neutrality will not mean we hit the 1.5C target if there is already too much carbon in the atmosphere. In other words, the sooner emissions are cut, the better.

Since China committed to its dual carbon targets last year, there have been calls at home and abroad for it to be more ambitious and aim for peak carbon in 2025, rather than 2030. But China’s NDC, which was submitted before the Glasgow conference, made no change to the target set by Xi Jinping last December, indicating there are no plans for an earlier carbon peak. Behind this lies China’s desire to balance climate targets with development.

Fu Sha said that a recent report from the International Energy Agency – An Energy Sector Roadmap to Carbon Neutrality in China – produced with support from the Energy Foundation China, found that there is hope for a faster transition and pre-2030 carbon peak, but “with more preconditions, more uncertainties, and extra effort”.

Commenting on the recent rebound in coal consumption triggered by the power shortages, Fu Sha said there may be big jumps in both emissions and coal consumption for 2021, reflecting the fact that while China’s economy is picking up speed, industry has not restructured and renewables are not keeping up. She thinks the key is controlling those short-term fluctuations, rather than letting them send long-term signals. If too many energy- and emissions-intensive projects get off the ground, short-term issues could be locked in for the longer term. “That is why China has never eased off on restrictions on those projects, and that’s the right choice,” she said.

She thinks the dual carbon targets represent big changes in how China develops and will require big innovations. For Fu, the run-up to peak carbon is a time of crucial preparations – not just for peak carbon itself, but for the changes that will be needed for carbon neutrality: laying the foundations and identifying the institutional and technical obstacles. “If those preparations aren’t made, it will be hard to reach carbon neutrality, even with a pre-2030 peak.”

The pressure to stay on target for 1.5C of warming, and near- to mid-term challenges, make immediate action on methane all the more important. As Fu Sha explained: methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas, its effects felt primarily in the short and mid-term. Although it doesn’t accumulate in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, it could cause an excessive short-term overshoot in warming that causes irreversible damage to ecosystems.

These near to mid-term concerns makes the China-US statement on climate action for the 2020s particularly significant.

Targets and action

It is impossible to know if China will reach peak carbon early, or what action it will take after that point. Fu Sha describes it as a process of “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, and that the important thing is to get to work.

That aligns with what Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institutes of Science and Development, said in an interview with the Guardian: despite external criticism, it is better for China to take concrete action now than to set distant targets. Wang also called for recognition of the efforts China is making towards its dual carbon targets: “To reach our targets, we have outlined a change to our entire system, not just in the energy sector but across society and the economy. Nobody knows this.”

That policy framework, known as “1+N”, started to be unveiled last month. Two parts have been released so far, with more, covering all sectors of the economy, to come. Fu Sha thinks the documents show recognition that carbon neutrality will require preparations across various systems, mechanisms and technologies. These include energy and electricity market mechanisms; pricing, tax, finance and the economy; and the integration of climate change considerations into land use and urban planning.

Although the Glasgow Climate Pact did not include concrete commitments on actions to reach the 1.5C target, it does mean countries will return with updated NDCs next year, rather than in 2025. This means lots of new targets will be set prior to next November’s COP27, in Sharm El-Sheikh. At that point, we will have a clearer view of Glasgow’s legacy, be able to evaluate China’s progress on its unique route to peak carbon and carbon neutrality, and see if the 1.5C target is coming closer, or drifting yet further away.

Update: An earlier version of this article said five parts of the “1+N” policy framework had been released by the time this article was first published, while in fact it was two.