All eyes on China

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The build up to the COP26 talks could not have happened against a worse backdrop. Global gas and coal prices are soaring amid shortages of fossil fuels. The Chinese state has reportedly told its state-owned enterprises to secure supplies ahead of winter. It is not the only one. A post pandemic sense of chaos exists across supply chains. Containers are scarce, expensive, and in the wrong places. Stimulus-funded consumption in the Global North, with all its attendant carbon emissions, continues unabated. Those same governments have failed to fulfil their finance pledges to the Global South and, in any case, most of those pledges are loans, not grants. 

Plassey, Berlin, and Delhi
Half of all carbon emissions globally since the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (and the start of British rule) have come after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Much of the emissions since 1989 is attributable to exports of manufactures from the Global South for use in the North, in addition to existing emissions in the rich countries. This also means that the bulk of the emissions before 1989 came from the Global North.
While currently China produces more than a quarter of all emissions, the US a ninth, the EU and India both only account for just over 6 per cent. Here’s the thing. Europe is developed and rich, much on the back of colonisation, while India is one of the poorest regions of Asia. If one looks at per capita emissions, then South Asian contributions per head are a fraction of that of Europe.
It is unlikely India will go head-to-head against its QUAD partners (US, Japan, and Australia), a quasi-military alliance against China. This therefore precludes, or at least impedes, cooperation with China over climate change. Nor is it going to change its economic model. It is far behind China and East Asia, at least a generation or more. India has made progress in its NDCs (Nationally Determined Commitments) through adding more renewables (an agreed 175GW to an unlikely target of 450 GW by 2030, by when it expects to reduce its carbon footprint by a third from 2005).
Critically, India has yet to commit to Net Zero emissions by 2060 (though don’t be surprised if there is a newsflash soon) because it feels aggrieved. At the joint International Energy Authority UN conference this spring, India’s energy minister, Raj Kumar Singh, said the Global North has to clean up carbon dioxide presently in the atmosphere because they had already used up 80 per cent of the world’s carbon budget over the past century and more. The Indian subcontinent and Africa cannot raise living standards on the remaining permissible emissions of global greenhouse gases.
Instead of net zero, the Indian minister demanded they talk about ‘net negative’, i.e., an absolute reduction. This marks a shift in thinking solely about future emissions, especially from developing countries in the South. The implication is that 400 gigatons of carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere. The question is how? There are serious doubts about the efficacy of carbon capture methods.

China, half developing, half developed
Like India and the rest of the Global South, traditionally China has been loath to sign up to climate commitments that could hamper its economic lift-off. China acknowledged the seriousness of the climate crisis, and its leaders were not ‘deniers’, unlike a recent US President. They were, and are, trying to balance the imperatives of high economic growth to lift people out of poverty with the need for a cleaner environment and a benign climate. China was the first of the major developing countries to produce a National Climate Change programme in 2007, and it committed to reduce carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) from 2009 onwards. Nevertheless, it did not want to sign up to legal commitments at the Copenhagen summit on the principle of ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities’ where developed countries were supposed to reduce emissions, allowing less developed economies to grow rapidly and raise emissions.
China, however, made a major concession in 2014 in negotiations with the USA, prior to the Paris Conference in 2015, where it agreed to produce a Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC) to reduce carbon emissions after 2030 and consume 20 per cent of energy from renewable sources. The latter almost sounds innocuous until one appreciates that this is an undertaking to bring 1000 gigawatts of renewable energy, the ‘same size of the entire US electricity system’.
Surveys in 2012 and 2017 showed the Chinese public backed moves to rein in air pollution, which they believe is also linked to climate change.
If we disaggregate the national statistics geographically, we find that the ‘region’ around Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou ‘together account for more than 60 per cent of China’s GDP and over half its coal consumption’. There lies the source of China’s phenomenal economic rise as well the bulk of its climate challenges.
In 2013, the Centre prohibited any further new coal plants in those regions, except for combined heat and power plants, stipulating that coal be replaced with either natural gas or renewable energy. In 2017, Beijing mandated a reduction on coal usage from 64 per cent to 58 per cent in the energy mix by 2020. It also allocated 270 billion dollars towards energy efficiency in the thirteenth Five Year Plan of 2017.
Nonetheless, fossil fuels are still subsidised by around 15 billion US dollars every year. Giant coal companies and local governments in China coalesce as powerful lobbies promoting coal. These powerful interests do not want to see their coal plants become stranded assets. It is important to bear in mind that the country’s headlong rush into high-speed industrialisation over more than a generation has been powered by abundant supplies of coal.
If China were to shut down coal plants and dirty heavy industries then that would mean having to find alternative jobs for six million displaced workers and avoid those areas becoming rust belts as seen in Western Europe and North America. Most former industrial workers are unlikely to work in new clean energy jobs, though 13 million jobs will be created in the new sector. They, and their families, are either located in the wrong areas or unlikely to be able to be easily retrained in a different career. Aggregate numbers hide the winners and losers, and the attendant political, economic, and social problems that ensue. Resistance to change by Big Business, affected workers, and local politicians slows down the shift to a new green paradigm. Notwithstanding all of this, China has pledged to become net zero by 2060.

Chinese solar and wind changes the energy paradigm
The International Energy Authority believes that Chinese solar will very soon be producing the same power as ‘the total electricity capacity of Japan’. It is on target to have 500 gigawatts of wind energy capacity by the end of this decade.
China is the reason solar energy costs have collapsed worldwide. This was attained by massive investments and astonishing economies of scale. When the US went to war in West and Central Asia, with fossil fuels in mind, solar and wind energy were tiny in scale, unaffordable and uneconomic (dependent on subsidies). Two decades later, renewables are on par and in some cases cheaper than fossil fuel. This has a global impact. India now finds that new solar and wind installations are cheaper than two thirds of coal generation in India. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will be greened. The recent refusal in writing by China to no longer finance and build any new coal plants abroad is a sign of the times.
The world needs anything from 3,000 to 10,000 gigawatts of solar electricity by 2030. Instead of helping to make this goal attainable, the US, Europe, and India have placed barriers to Chinese solar imports. Make of that what you will when their leaders speak at the COP26 summit.
Within countries too, one must not underestimate the size of the task. Most of the solar and wind plants are found in the west and north of China, while the economic powerhouses are in the east and south. This distance requires expensive long distance transmission lines, and problems of intermittency and energy storage need to be solved.

An impossible challenge?
For China to help keep global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius, coal must account for no more than a sixth of total energy mix by 2050. Its total energy consumption must peak at least a decade before that. Compared to 2015, energy efficiency has to improve by 300 percent. There can be no zero-growth strategy while China remains at the per capita income level of Poland. The aim is to become a ‘modern socialist country’. That means that China will climb to at least more than half the per capita income of the US around 2050.
The International Energy Authority, in its latest report, charts an optimistic course for China and energy, especially in an ‘Accelerated Transition Scenario’. It sees big gains in end use energy efficiency. Faith is place on markets, such as emissions trading schemes. Caution is warranted, however, with a premature reliance on risky technologies such as carbon capture usage systems, bio energy, and low carbon hydrogen. In a sense, the world is expected to bet on technologies that will only come on stream in a decade or so. Institutions, multinationals, and governments are not talking about abandoning the neoliberal globalisation model, within which emissions have reached extreme levels.
A China critic, Richard Smith says “hundreds of millions of Chinese are employed producing unsustainable products…. the Chinese need to abolish production of plastic junk to fast fashion, iPhones, IKEA furniture, and ritual new cars”.
But why start with the Chinese? The West needs to first curb its demand for these products and compensate China for the damaging impact on the environment because Western multinationals knowingly offshored their dirty industries to East Asia.
China has shifted to a new ‘dual circulation economy’ where its domestic markets will have equal weight to export markets. The vastness of its growing consumer base means the standards and regulations it sets will impact globally. How they go about this will largely determine the impact on the climate. If it turns out to be greener, under the umbrella of its legally mandated ‘ecological civilisation’, then it will serve as an alternative for South Asia to emulate.
The problem for South Asia is that it is so far behind East Asia in terms of GDP, level of development, and technology. Much of its elite also sees China as a threat. The result is likely to be that India will continue on the path of ‘dirty development’ (picking up all the bad habits of environmental damage), which China has in recent years been trying to leave behind. Clearly, for economic development, there has to be a massive transfer of industries from East to South Asia. This could be done rapidly if both regions cooperated and worked together. The difference would be that the new energy systems in South Asia could be clean and state of the art. China has a wealth of information to share with the Indian subcontinent, revealing how it industrialised, the mistakes it made on the environment, and how it is correcting course. As the IEA says: “it is a race against time, not a race against each other”.


“An Energy sector road map to carbon neutrality in China,” International Energy Authority, September 2021.
Finamore, Barbara, Can China save the planet? Polity, 2018.“India calls out rich nations for setting net zero goals over robust short-term targets” Climate Change News. 31 March, Richard, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, Pluto Press, 2020

Image: Internet

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