Fintech News & Trends in Hong Kong and Asia

China does hard yards on climate

Ambitious targets present all with a tough challenge, experts say

Passengers on Saturday board a special train, running from Amsterdam Central, via Rotterdam and Brussels to London, as they were about to travel to Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties. (REMKO DE WAAL / ANP /AFP)

Editor's Note: The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties has begun in Glasgow, Scotland. This page highlights China's commitment to developing green and low-carbon energy, and the urgency of international efforts to meet climate goals.

In its latest commitment to tackling the climate crisis, China pledged to end all financing of coal-fired power plants in other countries, and experts say the world's largest developing country deserves credit for its efforts in tackling climate change, and all countries should shoulder more responsibility to cut global emissions.

At the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Xi Jinping said: "China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad."

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a China expert and chairman of the Kuhn Foundation, said the Global Development Initiative Xi proposed in his UN speech encourages positive forces.

Such commitment "puts climate change theory into real world practice by reducing greenhouse gases, an action step unmatched by the fine rhetoric of others", Xinhua News Agency quoted Kuhn as saying.

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow that began on Sunday, the State Council published its plan detailing how China will reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

Under the plan, the share of nonfossil energy consumption by 2030 would amount to 25 percent, and CO2 emissions per unit of GDP would fall by more than 65 percent compared with 2005 levels. By 2030, 40 percent of new vehicles would be powered by clean energy.

China has reaffirmed that its CO2 emissions will reach a peak before 2030 and that carbon neutrality will be achieved by 2060. The government has also integrated the goal into the country's wider environmental plans.

Neil Hirst, a senior policy fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, said: "China has made some very considerable contributions to the climate effort, and its more recent announcement of carbon neutrality by 2060 is a bold step that also had a big international impact."

The success of the Paris Agreement was largely based on the joint support of Xi and then-US president Barack Obama, including China's commitment that its emissions will peak no later than 2030, he said.

"China deserves credit for its world-leading deployment of renewables and for big reductions in emissions per unit of GDP. China's emissions per person are still less than those of the US."

Hirst is the author of The Energy Conundrum: Climate Change, Global Prosperity, and the Tough Decisions We Have to Make.

The low-carbon commitment, as estimated, requires China to make the transition from reaching its carbon peak to realizing carbon neutrality within 30 years.

The Copenhagen Summit in 2009 set China's carbon intensity goal for 2020 at a 40 to 45 percent cut from 2005 levels. According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, compared with 2005, greenhouse emissions per unit of GDP fell by 48 percent by 2019 in China, meaning the country reached its target well ahead of schedule.

Employees install photovoltaic panels at a solar power plant in Kaposvar, Hungary, on Oct 30, 2020. The project was built by the China National Machinery Import and Export Corp. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Renewable energy

China's rapid economic growth has created room for large investment in renewable energy, experts say.

The cumulative installed capacity of renewable electricity generation in China had reached 934 million kilowatts by the end of last year, accounting for 42.5 percent of the country's total electricity-generating capacity, the energy news portal Beijixing Electricity Net reported. Last year 140 million kilowatts of renewable energy was installed, 17.5 percent more than in 2019, the National Energy Administration said.

Byford Tsang, a senior policy adviser with the climate change think tank E3G, said: "All efforts to reduce emissions should be recognized. All countries should contribute to reducing global emissions to the best of their abilities.

"Developed countries do shoulder a bigger share of responsibility to address climate change, according to the 'common but differentiated responsibility principle' of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change charter. At the same time, developing nations should also avoid 'locking-in' their power systems with fossil fuels, such as coal, as greener and cleaner alternatives become more widely available."

The cost of electricity from solar fell 82 percent between 2010 and 2019, Tsang said, largely because the rapid scaling up of production capacity, primarily led by China, has played a key role in driving down costs.

China is the first major developing country to put forward a carbon neutrality goal, Tsang said.

"To stay ahead in the race for global climate leadership, China should set out the policies and legislation to institutionalize the climate goal-something that the UK and the EU have done, but the US has yet to do."

A goal to keep global warming at well below 2 C and an aspirational limit of 1.5 C was agreed to by countries at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, at which China was widely seen as pivotal in concluding the accord. Some analysts are now saying 1.5 C must be reached to effectively tackle climate change.

Astrid Nordin, Lau Chair of Chinese International Relations at King's College London, said: "The positive Chinese efforts that are made to tackle climate change need to be increased and sped up."

Climate change is a clear threat to lives and livelihoods in China and elsewhere, so it is very clearly in the interest of China to do everything it can to mitigate climate impact, she said.

Hirst said the problem for many countries is that "efforts that might normally be regarded as admirable are shown to be inadequate now that we understand the full severity of the climate crisis. China is inevitably in the frame because its population and its economy are so large.

"There are serious social and political difficulties in running down a coal industry, as the UK discovered in the 1970s and Germany is experiencing now, not to mention the need for alternative power. It is not going to be easy."

China's top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua said earlier that while "some countries are pushing to rewrite the Paris Agreement … we have to understand the different situations in different countries, and strive to reach a consensus".

Industrialized countries especially in the West, were able to become rich before carbon reduction controls came in, he said, and developing economies should not be expected to make such heavy reductions.

Another cornerstone of the 2015 Paris Agreement was the pledge developed countries made to provide at least $100 billion in financial assistance from public and private sources to help developing countries cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However, that has not been fulfilled, said Tsang of E3G, who sees this as one of the major obstacles for COP 26.

"Despite setting long-term climate goals, the US has not institutionalized its targets in the form of legislation, unlike the EU. Fear of a possible change of administration in 2024 and the US reversing course on climate policies could also be a hindrance on US-China engagement on climate."