China’s Climate Change Efforts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

 
 

It’s been an interesting week for those hoping that a landmark international agreement on climate change will come out of the UN conference in Paris later this year. On November 2 and 3, French President Francois Hollande was in Beijing, full of enthusiasm for the climate change promises China made during his two day visit. But a day after Hollande left China, the Chinese government released statistics revealing Beijing has severely underreported its coal consumption for the past decade. That, in turn, raised doubts that it can reach ambitious targets to cut coal use and reach peak emissions.

The Good: Hollande, who went to China for the express purpose of paving the way for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to be a success, went away satisfied. While in Chongqing, Hollande stated the obvious: that “the support of the Chinese is essential” to reaching the goal of “a global and ambitious agreement that will allow [global] warming to be limited to two degrees.” In that regard, Hollande declared his visit not only a success, but “historic.” Hollande proclaimed that “the conditions for success [at the Paris conference] have been laid down in Beijing today.”

Most notably, China and France agreed that any deal reached in Paris should include reviews every five years to be sure the commitments are being implemented and that warming can be kept under 2 degrees Celsius. Previously, China had been reluctant to embrace a deal that includes enforcement mechanisms. But the Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change issued during Hollande’s visit saw both sides agree to “an enhanced transparency system to build mutual trust and confidence and promote effective implementation including through reporting and review of action and support.” China and France also said they “support taking stock every five years and in a comprehensive manner of overall progress made towards reaching the agreed long-term goals.”

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“I’m confident for the progress of the conference,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said after meeting with Hollande. “Our statement has injected positive energy to the multilateral process of addressing climate change,” Xi added, according to Xinhua.

The Bad: Any positive vibes from Hollande’s visit, however, were overshadowed on November 4, when the New York TimesChris Buckley reported that China had underreported coal consumption by up to 17 percent per year over the past decade. That means China may have released nearly a billion tons more carbon dioxide than previously thought from 2011 to 2013 alone.

Buckley cited updated data quietly released in China’s annual energy statistics yearbook. The scale of the discrepancy is enormous: “[T]he new figures add about 600 million tons to China’s coal consumption in 2012 — an amount equivalent to more than 70 percent of the total coal used annually by the United States,” Buckley wrote.

The new figures have shaken environmental experts’ cautious optimism about recent promises from China to cut emissions, including a pledge to move to a national emissions trading system announced during Xi’s visit to the United States. As Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations put it:

Assuming that Chinese industrial production and manufacturing statistics are accurate, the dramatic increase in coal consumption that is now reported suggests that the gains in Chinese energy efficiency, as well as the reductions in energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP), that have been touted over the past decade are much less than assumed—or perhaps they are nonexistent.

Experts also worry that China’s pledge to have its total emissions peak by 2030 could be too little, too late, given the massive bump in coal consumption (and thus China’s emissions to date).

The Ugly: While it’s easy to paint these stories in black and white, the messy truth is that both Hollande’s visit and China’s updated coal statistics are a mixed bag.

The China-France joint statement on climate change isn’t as revolutionary as it might seem, for example. Despite Hollande’ s assurance that China made a commitment “to catch up with the fight against emissions, and take all the obligations that we have imposed on ourselves,” the joint statement contains plenty of caveats pointing to China’s long-standing position that the developing world can take it slow on emissions reductions.

Language in the statement calling for the Paris agreement to reflect “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances,” is straight out of China’s climate change diplomacy playbook. The statement also nods to “the importance of shifting the global economy onto a low carbon path in the course of this century,” but only if the changes come “at a rhythm consistent with strong economic growth and equitable social development.”

Even the much-touted agreement for reviews on the implementation of the Paris agreement contains a major out for China: “It should provide flexibility to those developing countries that need it in light of their capacities.” In other words, China reserves the right to go back to its long-standing policy of sacrificing the environment for economic growth (and, to be fair, China is far from alone in doing this).

Some Room for Hope?

The updated statistics on coal use could, paradoxically, be a good thing. For one, the fact that the Chinese government released the new figures is a step forward for transparency, and for Beijing’s ability to accurately monitor coal use (and thus control it more effectively moving forward). And while the news that China has used much more coal – and emitted much more carbon dioxide – than previously believed is disheartening, it does nothing to change the fact that China is showing signs of weaning itself off of coal.

As of September 2015, China’s coal use had declined every month for a straight year – evidence of an unprecedented change in China’s coal industry. Economic data supports the idea that China may have reached peak coal. South China Morning Post reports that more than half of Chinese-listed coal companies that reported their third-quarter financials suffered losses. That’s part of a broader trend: coal profits in China were down 46 percent in 2014.

Some experts believe the massive jump in China’s reported coal use will accelerate existing trends toward declining coal use. The Chinese government can use the eye-popping new numbers to add urgency to its efforts to make the country less reliant on coal. China is already the world’s largest investor in renewable energy and those numbers will only increase as Beijing tries to fulfill a promise to have non-fossil fuels account for 20 percent of its total energy use by 2030.

When it comes to China’s climate change commitments, every cloud has a silver lining, but every silver lining has a cloud as well. It’s a messy, complicated picture with good reasons for both hope and despair – in short, a lot like the global fight against climate change.

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