China as a leader in facing climate change. Paris agreement commitments and achievements so far


By Loren Kocollari.

China’s role in the preparation and the entry into force of the Paris Agreement was well-received back in 2015. From that moment, China has tried on many occasions to confirm its position as a global leader in the fight against climate change. During the UN General Assembly in September 2020, China pledged to become a carbon neutral country before 2060 (Song, 2020). According to some predictions from the Climate Action Tracker (2021), if China’s goal for carbon neutrality will be reached, that means that “it will lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C.” As many researchers have already stated, if successfully implemented, this effort would become the largest step ever in fighting climate change.

The commitment made by Xi Jinping in front of the United Nations regarding the role China will play in fighting climate change was later emphasized in the Outline of China’s 14th Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development, covering the timeframe 2021-2025, which was published in March 2021. In the Outline, it is predicted that the consumption per unit of GDP of China’s energy during the years 2021 and 2025 will be reduced by 13.5%, while the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP will be reduced by 18 %. The Outline suggests also that China will reach its carbon emission peak by 2030, sharing the same commitment made by Xi Jinping at the UN session. This means that if everything will go according to plan, after 2030 China’s carbon emission will start to decline. It is worthy to say that China meet most of the commitments that had taken in the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) (Lewis, Edwards, 2021).

There are some important indicators regarding China’s action in fighting climate change. From all the installed capacities of renewable energy around the world, China is the owner of around 30% of them. China is ahead globally in creating a low-carbon economy. As Foreign Policy explains, “In 2018, Chinese companies made up over a third of the world’s manufacturers of wind turbines. In 2019, the country built over 70 percent of the world’s solar photovoltaics. In electric vehicles, China’s command is even greater: It holds almost three-fourths of the world’s manufacturing capacity for lithium ion battery cells, and it controls even more of the supply chain before the final assembly” (Ladislaw, Tsafos, 2020).

The result is clear. Two of the three next big green energy technologies are for the moment mostly produced in China. A report issued by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation concluded in 2019 that “No country has put itself in a better position to become the world’s renewable energy superpower than China” (Dudley, 2019). Another benefit of being a global leader in clean energy, is the reduction of the reliance on imports from other parties, that can undermine China’s economic ambitions.

Other studies, suggests also that positive changes are already happening. A study which used NASA satellite data (2000-2017) to analyze the green leaf zones around the world, showed that these zones have increased by 5% since the 2000s, where “China alone accounts for 25% of the global net increase in leaf area with only 6.6% of global vegetated area.” (Chen et al., 2019)

Climate Action Tracker, one of the most quoted independent scientific analysis which tracks government climate action, considers as worrying the fact that China continues to be committed in supporting the coal industry. Global Energy Monitor (2021) reports that as of July 2020, the coal power plants under construction in the country would undermine China’s goal of carbon neutrality, therefore, undermining its commitment to the Paris Agreement. For experts, these numbers can be easily overturn if there will be the will from the government. China can move away from fossil fuels consumption, considering that it is a global leader in clean energy technologies, and that it can always rely upon the help of nuclear power plants.

China’s long-term commitment for the moment does not cover non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases (GHGs), which should also be taken into consideration by China and other countries that want to limit the warming of the planet below 1.5 degrees C. However, in the 14th Five Year Plan there is a segment dedicated also to non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases, where it is stated that China will “increase controls on other greenhouse gases such as methane, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons,” but without specifying any dates, which would make the commitment more accountable.

According to the third National Communication on Climate Change of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s annual mean air temperature might increase even to 5.0°C by the end of this century in the high greenhouse gases concentration scenario, if we compare it to the period 1986-2005. That number changes drastically under low GHG concentration scenario (1.3°C) and medium GHG concentration scenario (2.6°C). In the National Communication document, it is also stated that reproducing real climate characteristics by using global climate models may come with some deficiencies. That means that further work towards elaborating better simulation capabilities will be needed to have a clear understanding of how the future will look like.

On 17th of April 2021, China and the United States, the two biggest carbon polluters in the world, agreed to further work together to tackle climate change. The meeting of the two special envoys for climate, the U.S Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry and China Special Envoy Xie Zhenhua, produced a list of actions which both the countries agreed to take in the future. In the joint statement issued by China and the United States to address the climate change, it was stated that the two countries were committed to cooperate in order to address a crisis “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”

Carbon neutrality pledge is a giant commitment, which cannot be easily achieved without the support of the country’s population of 1.4 billion people. From the energy consumption, to the production of food, China will need to change and transform completely its economy. Meanwhile, the awareness regarding the climate change risks in China is growing even among the Chinese citizens. According to a survey organized by China Center for Climate Change Communication in 2017, “94.5% of the respondents think that climate change is happening, 75.2% believe they’ve already experienced impact of climate change, and nearly 80% are worried about climate change” (China4C, 2017).

An ancient Chinese proverb says that “man must conquer nature.” After decades of unparalleled growth, it looks like the only way for China and the rest of the world to truly conquer nature, is by trying to respect it as much as possible.


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