Is China serious about its climate commitments, or just blowing smoke?

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China has alternately played climate villain and climate hero in recent years. On the one hand, China’s leaders have made headlines for taking bold steps to slow carbon emissions and limit the worst impacts of a warming planet, like when they shut down some 70 Gigawatts of coal-fired power – more than the total installed capacity of many smaller countries – in just seven years, or reduced particulate matter pollution in major cities by more than 30% in just four years. On the other, those same leaders continue to green-light a massive build-out of coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, committing the country and the planet to another half-century or more of carbon emissions from outdated and inefficient technology burning plentiful but harmful fossil fuels. So is China serious about its climate commitments, or just blowing smoke?

During the Obama presidency, China and the United States seemed ready to lead the way toward decarbonizing the two largest and most heavily-polluting economies on the planet. Indeed, China’s leaders faced intense pressure at home to address emissions. Decades of coal-fired prosperity was not only enhancing the greenhouse effect and hastening human-induced planetary warming, but was also making cities in eastern China virtually unlivable due to suffocating air quality. Thus whereas most urban Chinese citizens didn’t perceive the impacts of climate change on a daily basis, they were well aware of – and often sickened by – dangerously high levels of particulate matter, ozone, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide and other pollutants in the cities.

In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics and famously – though quietly – used silver iodide rockets to force rain and clear the grubby skies around Beijing. The same year, the US Embassy in Beijing installed an air quality monitor on its roof and launched a Twitter feed posting the readings. The move was initially aimed at US expats living in China, but as more and more Chinese citizens came to rely on the embassy data, Beijing municipal authorities and national leaders took note. China’s leadership, dependent on high levels of economic growth to maintain the Communist Party’s legitimacy, had long been reluctant to crack down on emissions from the state-owned coal industry for fear of resulting economic shocks and social unrest. Yet now, as more and more wealthy, educated urban Chinese grew accustomed to transparent air quality data (if not transparent air), pollution from fossil fuels came to represent an immediate political threat, not simply a longer-term climate issue. Eventually, Beijing’s leaders launched their own competing air pollution index which, despite some technical differences in how the index was constructed and reports were scaled, essentially told the same story.

Journalist Chai Jing famously brought air pollution in eastern Chinese cities to light in her 2015 documentary “Under the Dome,” during which she narrated in Ted-Talk-style the travails of modern urbanites trying to live their lives – and raise their children – in cities with unbreathable air. The documentary was wildly popular when released, garnering several hundred million views in the first week. Yet despite almost certainly having the blessing of China’s propaganda authorities, the film was banned in China after a week and removed from download sites.

Faced with widespread discontent over air pollution, China’s leaders instituted a series of moves designed to clean up urban air quality, including retirements of coal-fired power plants and a shutdown of many coal-fired industries in the five-province region surrounding Beijing. At the same time, China’s energy planners doubled down on investments in wind, solar, and hydroelectricity across the country, experimented with “efficiency power plants” (能效电厂) to see to what extent industrial efficiency gains could offset the need to build new power plants. Energy thinkers and decision-makers at the highest levels of the Chinese government (the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission) joined RMI, China Energy Foundation, and Lawrence Berkley Labs China Energy Group to map an economically and technically feasible path to a radically more efficient and lower-carbon Chinese economy by 2050. In 2008, those same researchers had presciently calculated that a nationwide phase-out of incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient LEDs and CFLs (light-emitting diodes and compact fluorescent lights, respectively) could save annually roughly as much electricity as the Three Gorges Dam produces – some 85 terawatt-hours. Despite concerns that much of the wind and solar in the early days remained disconnected from the grid, and that the social and ecological impacts of large-scale hydropower can be devastating and enduring, environmentalists generally cheered these efforts as evidence that the world’s largest and most polluting economy, the one that accounted for roughly half the world’s coal consumption, was on the road to cleaning up its climate act.

The picture in recent years, however, has become somewhat grayer. For one, the collaborative spirit and actual high-level engagements on climate and energy engendered during the Obama years between the US and China quickly evaporated following the US election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. In addition, after a promising decrease from 2014 to 2016, China’s CO2 emissions once again began to rise, and have done so steadily ever since. At the same time, China has installed new capacity in wind energy, solar energy, and hydropower at a staggering rate: over 14 GW of hydropower, 16 GW of wind, and 25 GW of solar in the first nine months of 2021 alone. Yet despite the world-leading growth in its renewable energy sector, China’s economy remains far from weaning itself from cheap coal.

Natural gas is also playing a role in extending China’s – and indeed the world’s – reliance on fossil fuels. Thanks to technological advances in unconventional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a suite of processes collectively referred to as “fracking,” natural gas producers are now able to extract more gas more quickly from new and old deposits alike. The fracking revolution in the first decade of this century in the US in particular had the unfortunate effect, from the perspective of natural gas providers, of flooding the market in the US and driving prices down. Gas producers need higher prices to counter the high production costs of fracked gas, and as a result have sped efforts to find new overseas markets, number one of which was China.

But shipping natural gas across the ocean presents a technical challenge as there are no pipelines connecting the North America and Asia. The gas, therefore, must be transported in liquefied form (LNG), requiring specialized ships and shipping terminals, along with significant energy to compress and cool the gas in order to keep it in a liquid state. Anticipating those LNG shipments, China has rushed to build more than 20 new LNG terminals on its east coast, convinced that natural gas, with far lower particulate emissions than coal, will be an important “bridge fuel” in China’s energy mix for the foreseeable future. With energy infrastructure such as power plants and LNG terminals usually assumed to have a 40-year lifespan at minimum, the sunk costs of those terminals and the nearly 250 GW of thermal power plants constructed since 2016, present a significant speedbump – if not a barrier – on China’s path to peaking emissions within the decade and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.

The only bright spot of the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, were the blue skies brought about by a widespread slowdown in the global economy. Yet in early 2020, China’s economy began to pick up once again, with economic activity driven primarily by the carbon-intensive steel and cement sectors, primarily through government support of the building sector. Alongside that increased economic activity predictably came a rise in CO2 emissions, with the International Energy Agency pegging China’s December 2020 emissions 7% higher than those of 2019, when the economic impacts of the pandemic had not yet brought China’s economy to a standstill. That one-year increase follows on roughly five years of consistent increases, during which in 2019 China more than tripled its 1990 emissions. The rapid ramp-up of domestic coal extraction in China beginning in October 2021, as a perfect storm of soaring energy demand, continued disruptions in supply chains, and a power grid not yet fully capable of meeting spikes in demand with renewables, is yet the latest in a series of worrisome trends.

In 2015, China’s Communist Party Chairman and paramount leader Xi Jinping’s pledged to peak greenhouse gas emissions around 30. He further committed the country to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, when leader-for-life Xi would be 107 years old. Since the election in the US of Joe Biden as president in 2020, a modicum of stability has returned to the China-US relationship, and with it some increased hopes of meaningful cooperation. On 21 September 2021, Xi announced that his signature global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), would no longer build coal-fired power plants abroad, but the BRI has already brought Chinese money and engineering to a host of overseas ranging from Southeast Asia to South America. And even though Xi’s pledge to pull coal out of the BRI was welcome news, the trend in domestic coal consumption and construction of new coal-fired power plants is worrisome, to say the least. Now, with COP 26 upon us and world leaders negotiating next steps in addressing the climate crisis (while individually scheming to keep their own economies humming), the need for real cooperation between the China and the US could not be clearer.

Skeptics of humanity’s role in climate change often point to the shortcomings and uncertainties in climate models. To be sure, Earth is a wickedly complex system to model, and scientists are daily refining our understanding of how oceans, atmosphere, forests, and even soil bacteria play a role in offsetting the increased greenhouse gas emissions from human industrial activity. Yet the basic science behind climate change is simple. Coal, petroleum, and natural gas are nothing more than stored sunlight, captured by photosynthetic plants millions of years ago and turned into carbohydrates such as cellulose; compressed in “primeval swamp goo” for millions more years until little remained but the carbons and hydrogens (hence hydrocarbons); and then dug up by homo sapiens industrialis and burned, liberating the energy from that ancient sunlight while simultaneously – and tragically – releasing gases that improve Earth’s ability to keep that warmth near the surface.

In the end, it’s that simple. China and the United States need to keep the coal in the ground and fully commit to a future rooted in energy efficiency and renewables. Anything short of that is just blowing smoke.


Image: Charlotte Sullivanthe / Internet

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