Climate: China’s New ResponsibilitiesUpdated on 07.21.2021
10 min read
As the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States, China has acquired a new geopolitical position and therefore has a responsibility to ensure the planet’s sustainable future. Given its historical influence, its methods will shape growth paths in many countries in the emerging world.
© WANG ZHAO / AFP - A road in Beijing in March 2018, engulfed in a cloud of smog. Urban pollution has prompted China to embark on a proactive energy transition.
At almost $15,000 billion, China’s GDP1 is approaching that of the United States ($21,500 billion). If the European Union is taken as a whole (by adding up the GDP of its members), a trio emerges that is dominating the new global economy. As a result of its elevated status, Beijing has taken on new responsibilities, especially in global technological development and in the fight against
With accounting for more than 60% of its energy consumption, China contributes more than a quarter of global CO2 emissions in absolute terms, the same as the United States and Europe combined.
Even when looking at emissions per capita, which offsets the weight of China’s population of 1.4 billion, a person in China today still emits more greenhouse gases than their Europe counterparts.
In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised experts by pledging to make the country carbon neutral by 2060, meaning that it would not emit more greenhouse gases than it could capture. He also said that the “peak”, when China’s emissions will start to fall in absolute terms, would be reached “before 2030”.
Several strategic reasons are spurring China to make these changes, but major difficulties are holding it back.
Keeping its place in the “trio” – When the then U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the universal Paris Agreement on climate change, China took on the role of guarantor of climate action, together with Europe. The United States’ return to the world stage following the election of Joe Biden as president in early 2021 gave fresh impetus to the agreement signed in Paris at the 21 in December 2015.
Leading in technological innovation – The energy transition requires a range of technologies in which China has excelled for years. Already dominating the solar photovoltaic panel sector and active in all new nuclear technologies, it has now set the pace in the development of electric motors too. In 2015, the Chinese government decided to pursue an electrification strategy focused on the battery electric vehicle, as opposed to the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. Given the importance of the government in a state-led economy and the critical mass of the Chinese market, all manufacturers, including Japanese and European ones, have followed suit.
Managing pollution problems – Another strong incentive is the desire to “make the skies blue again”, to use the phrase employed by Chinese officials. Mass use of coal and weak environmental regulations have caused air, water and soil pollution to reach intolerable levels for the Chinese people. The rise of more environmentally demanding middle classes has created public pressure on the Chinese government to take action. In response, small coal mines have been closed and polluting
plants relocated away from cities.
Obstacles to Overcome
Reducing coal consumption – In certain provinces, the Chinese authorities introduced measures prohibiting industrial and domestic coal use, recommending that businesses and homes switch to gas. However, gas and shortages caused by high demand have triggered such discontent that the Chinese authorities have had to reverse the bans.
Optimizing the use of renewable electricity – The largest wind farms are located in the north of the country, while demand is concentrated on the east and south coasts. However, the power transmission grid is still weak, meaning that some of the electricity that could be generated by new facilities is “lost”.
China Creates a National Carbon Market
A little behind schedule, China launched a national carbon market in February 2021. As in Europe, it is based on an emissions scheme for thermal power plants. Putting a price on carbon increases the cost of polluting emissions, giving companies an incentive to reduce them.
1 Gross domestic product (GDP) measures the value of the annual “production of wealth” by the economic agents of a country (households, companies, public administrations). Measured here in constant dollars.