April 13, 2024

Will China save the planet or destroy it?

Although he was dying of brain cancer, Tu Changwang had one last thing to say. The respected Chinese meteorologist noted that the weather was warming. Thus, in 1961, he warned in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, that this could alter the conditions that sustain life. However, he saw the warming as part of a cycle of solar activity that would likely reverse at some point. You didn’t suspect that burning fossil fuels was pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and causing climate change. In that edition of the People’s Daily, a few pages before your newspaper, there was a photo of smiling coal miners. China was rushing to industrialize with the aim of economically catching up with the West.

Photovoltaic panels at a solar power plant operated by Beijing Energy International Holding Co. on the outskirts of Beijing, China, on Thursday, March 14, 2024. To meet its climate goals, China has engaged in world-leading renewable energy construction . Photographer: Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg(Bloomberg)

Today China is an industrial power, where more than a quarter of the world’s manufacturing industry is concentrated – more than America and Germany combined. But its progress has come at a cost in terms of emissions. Over the past three decades, China has released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in total than any other country (see chart 1). It currently emits more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases every year, according to the Rhodium Group, an American research firm. That’s about twice as much as America, which comes in second (although on a per capita basis, America is even worse).

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Much, then, depends on China if the world is to keep global warming since the Industrial Revolution well below 2°C, as governments promised at the annual UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. This year’s summit (called COP28 ) began on November 30th. In Dubai. China brings good and bad news for participants.

On the positive side, China’s emissions will soon stop rising. Some analysts think they will reach the top this year. There is little doubt that the peak will occur before 2030, which is the target China has set for itself. It is building nuclear plants faster than any other country. It has also invested heavily in renewable energy (see graph 2), so much so that it now has around 750 gigawatts of wind and solar production capacity, around a third of the world’s total. By the end of the decade, the government aims to have 1,200 GW of this capacity, more than the total energy capacity of the European Union at the moment. China will likely far exceed this target.

But it’s not just China’s embrace of renewable energy that is helping it reduce emissions. Its production of carbon-intensive steel and cement has been falling. After decades of building roads and railways, the government is spending less on major infrastructure projects. A long expansion of the real estate sector culminated in a collapse that shook the economy – but led to fewer emissions. In the future, few analysts expect China’s GDP to grow as quickly as it did at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. Put another way, the dirtiest phase of China’s development is probably behind it.

More important than the peak, however, is what happens next. China has committed to eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions (or becoming “carbon neutral”) by 2060. This will be a much more difficult goal to achieve. Even after this massive injection of renewables, dirty coal still provides well over half of China’s energy. This figure is lower than the approximately 70% recorded in 2011, but the amount of coal that China burns continues to increase as electricity demand increases. Last year, China mined a record 4.5 billion tons of black rock and approved the construction of about two new coal-fired power plants per week, on average.

Many of them may never be built. Declining utilization rates at existing coal plants undermine the need for new construction. But China is not abandoning coal as quickly as environmentalists would like or as analysts say is necessary to meet its 2060 goal. Part of the problem is that the country has too much of it. With little oil or gas, coal provides China with a secure source of energy. Digging it up creates jobs. Building a coal plant, whether necessary or not, is also a common way for local governments to boost economic growth.

China’s power grid was built with coal in mind. In factories that burn the substance, humans decide when to increase or decrease the speed. But when it comes to solar and wind energy, nature is king. Therefore, the network needs to be made more flexible. When there is a surplus of energy in one location, it must be possible to store it or move it to another location. Otherwise, China will not be able to accommodate many new wind turbines and solar panels in the future.


Most countries need to make similar changes to their networks. The challenge China faces, however, is unique, says David Fishman of the Lantau Group, an energy consultancy. Most of the country’s solar and wind resources are located in the west. But the energy they generate is mainly needed in the east, where the country’s largest cities are located. Transferring it over such long distances is complicated. Another problem is that provincial governments have a lot to say about how their part of the network works. They don’t like to depend on each other for energy. So, for example, a province may prefer to use its own coal-fired power plant rather than a cleaner energy source located elsewhere.

Those concerned about China’s progress also worry about methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Some countries can reduce their methane emissions in simple ways, such as repairing leaks in gas pipes. But most of China’s methane comes from coal mines or is produced by microbes in rice fields. It’s difficult to solve the problem without closing mines or changing agricultural practices. So at the 2021 UN climate summit, China refused to join more than 100 other countries, including the United States, that have committed to reducing global methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030. Earlier this month However, China said it would address the issue in its national climate plan for 2035 (which may only be published in the next two years).

Faced with these challenges, China’s leaders must be bold. But its climate ambitions may have already peaked, says Li Shuo, the new director of the China Climate Center at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. He believes power cuts caused by rising coal prices and droughts disrupting hydropower have scared the government in recent years. Now, officials worry that climate-friendly policies could undermine the country’s energy security (Greens argue that some reforms, like making the grid more flexible, would have the opposite effect). Li expects China’s emissions to stabilize rather than decline.

China, however, has good reasons to prioritize climate. Some of its largest cities, including Shanghai, are on the coast and could be swallowed by rising sea levels. The arid north lacks drinking water. And extreme weather conditions are already taking their toll. Last year, deaths associated with heat waves in China increased by 342% compared to the historical average, according to a study published by Lancet, a medical journal. This summer’s floods damaged much of China’s wheat harvest.

Meanwhile, China has become a leader in green energy technology. The rest of the world is largely dependent on Chinese solar panels and battery supply chains. This year, China overtook Japan to become the world’s largest auto exporter, thanks in part to China’s dominance in electric vehicles.

Peaks and peaks

Therefore, there is some hope that China will play a productive role at the Dubai climate summit. With ambitions to lead the global South, it will not want to appear as if it is neglecting an issue that is foremost on the minds of many developing country officials. Optimists also point to the meeting between Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy, and John Kerry, his American counterpart, in November. They agreed on some small steps, such as collaborating on carbon capture projects.

However, China has also made clear that it will not bow to pressure on climate change. Earlier this year, Xi Jinping, its leader, reiterated his goal of reaching a carbon peak by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. “But the path, the method, the pace and the intensity to achieve this goal should and must be determined by ourselves, and will never be influenced by others,” he said.

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© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Economist, published under license. Original content can be found at www.economist.com

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