By Tilak Doshi
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. 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, 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”
It is no surprise that the Republicans in the US Senate would never have approved of such an outcome early on, which explains President Obama’s adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 through the backdoor of defining US participation in the Paris Agreement as an “executive agreement” and not an international treaty. As part of this non-treaty, the developed countries were expected to sign on to annual transfers of $US100 billion as part of the “climate finance” leg of the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement was hailed as President Obama’s “breakthrough” understanding with China that the latter too would join in the global effort to cut emissions. The President of US-based Natural Resources Defense Council claimed that the two countries are “on an unstoppable path to protect us from climate change, the central environmental challenge of our time”.
Perhaps most ironic in the celebratory announcements of the Paris Agreement to “save the planet” is the fact that the emission-curtailing commitments of the developing countries such as China and India mean little in practice. Green policy promises for future implementation are a costless way to extract diplomatic benefits at zero cost. As part of the Paris Agreement’s non-binding requirements, China promised to reaching peak emissions “around 2030” but offered no commitment regarding the level of that peak or the subsequent rate of emission decline.
Hardly noticed amidst the fanfare over China’s latest pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2060 is the body of research that show China’s emissions would peak anyway by 2030 under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. A survey of about 260 participants reported by Bloomberg resulted in 90% of the respondents saying that China’s carbon emissions will probably peak on or before 2030. An analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance concluded that the commitment with respect to emissions intensity is actually less ambitious than BAU. A similar conclusion was found for India.
Yet, it would be wrong to understand this state of affairs primarily as one of countries such as China and India being “spoilers” in the global climate change crusade. Governments of developing countries such as China and India are fully aware of the profound contradiction in the heart of energy planning between long-run green energy promises and the immediate goals of economic growth and government budget priorities. These countries will not sacrifice national economic growth and the aspirations of its citizens for the supposed global good.
For the Chinese Communist Party, staying in power is its highest priority. Regime stability and political legitimacy is ultimately linked to continued economic growth and improvements in living standards of ordinary people. Economic growth in turn depends on continued access to fossil fuels. China’s planners are well aware that no country on earth since the Industrial Revolution has developed without the use of fossil fuels. The story of successful economic development has essentially been to climb the “energy ladder”, graduating from the age-old use of foraged wood, crop residues and cow-dung to modern fuels such as propane, high quality gasoline and diesel, and dependable grid electricity. But the Western environmental movement has focused on coercing poorer countries to adopt quixotic decarbonization policies based on unreliable intermittent renewable energy technologies with absurd analogies of “leapfrogging”.
It is no surprise then that Asian planners have sometimes reacted strongly. It was not too long ago that Arvind Subramaniam — previously chief economic advisor to the Indian government — stated that India cannot allow the West’s “carbon imperialism” to block rational planning for the vast energy infrastructure required for modern agriculture, industrialization, urbanization and mobility. At the Durban climate conference in 2011, China’s lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua put the point across even more forthrightly, asking Western governments “what qualifies you to lecture us on what to do”? The Chinese government, like its counterparts in India and other developing countries, knows that forsaking national economic growth for a supposed global good is not a sustainable political strategy.
While China talks a good game on climate change, it will most assuredly try to become rich before it gets old.