China’s Climate Commitments
What do the latest government announcements mean for China’s climate commitments?
In this article we take a look at the recent government announcements relating to the China energy market and consider the historical context in which these announcements were made.
On April 12th, 2023, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) announced priority tasks to develop the domestic energy sector (1). Among them, two points stood out for their potentially conflicting priorities:
- A validation of coal’s importance as the “ballast stone” of domestic energy supply, with approvals for new coal power plants and coal mines to be accelerated.
- Continued support for low-carbon transition, specifically to increase the proportion of non-fossil energy in total energy consumption by 1% per year over the next five years, and for 80% of the new electricity growth to come from renewable sources.
It could certainly be argued that these two points seem at odds with one another. However, a look back at the historical background to this announcement provides some insight into China’s perspective.
China’s Dual Carbon Target
On September 22nd, 2020, China’s president Xi Jinping addressed the United Nations General Assembly by video link. In his speech, Xi pledged that China would peak carbon emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Together, these two targets became known as China’s “dual carbon” or “30-60” target.
Carbon peaking by 2030 was not news, as Xi had already set that target at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference. It was the announcement of carbon neutrality by 2060 that carried the most significance Previously, China had taken a more conservative stance, saying that it was still a developing country and that the responsibility to address climate change should fall mainly on industrialized nations that had contributed the most to accumulating greenhouse gas emissions over the past few hundred years.
For China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 would be a herculean feat, considering that China was at that time (and still is) the world’s largest emitter of CO2, having surpassed the US in 2006.
If China were successful in achieving its target, it would single-handedly reduce global temperature rise by 0.2 – 0.3 degrees Celsius (2). The announcement demonstrated that China has taken a strong stance against climate change and aspires to be a global leader, which was especially relevant given the backdrop that in 2020 the US had withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, leaving a leadership void.
In 2022, China’s progress towards reducing emissions was on track, with renewable electricity capacity growing to 47.3% of the country’s total, surpassing coal fueled generation for the first time (3). By the end of 2022, China had 1,200 GW of installed renewable electricity capacity, making it the world’s largest and fastest growing producer of renewable energy.
“By the end of 2022, China had 1,200 GW of installed renewable electricity capacity, making it the world’s largest and fastest growing producer of renewable energy.”
Coal – The “Ballast Stone” of China’s Energy System
Following the summer of power cuts, China accelerated approvals for new coal projects. A CREA report (4) in February 2023 found that China permitted 106 GW of new coal capacity in 2022, four times higher than 2021 and the highest annual increase since 2015.
Coal’s importance in China lies in the fact that the country has abundant coal resources. It produces around 90% of the coal it uses, whereas it needs to import 70% and 50% of its oil and gas, respectively. The volatile global fuel prices due to the Ukraine war will increase China’s desire for self-reliance even more, thus the announcement on April 12th that approvals for new coal mines will also be accelerated.
A Balancing Act
This announcement reveals the delicate balance that China is walking. On one hand, China needs to protect its economy and maintain energy independence. On the other hand, China still wants to uphold its climate commitments and continue to transition towards for carbon neutrality. As much as China wants to build a future with clean renewable energy, economic growth and social stability are always concerns that take immediate precedence. Hence, coal will be called upon to provide a cushion along the bumpy road to carbon neutrality.
With the 2030 carbon peaking target seven years away, China still has some room to maneuver. However, the longer China allows CO2 emissions to rise before peaking, the more difficult it will be to achieve carbon neutrality 30 years later.
As a concession to the emphasis on coal, the April 12th announcement did also reveal support for renewables by giving concrete near-term targets, stipulating that China would increase renewable energy consumption by 1% each year over the next five years.
- scio.gov.cn. (2023). 国新办举行‘权威部门话开局’系列主题新闻发布会介绍‘全面落实党的二十大精神 深入推进能源高质量发展’有关情况图文实录. [online] Available at: http://www.scio.gov.cn/xwfbh/xwbfbh/wqfbh/49421/49789/wz49791/Document/1739333/1739333.htm.
- org. (2020). China going carbon neutral before 2060 would lower warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C. [online] Available at: https://climateactiontracker.org/press/china-carbon-neutral-before-2060-would-lower-warming-projections-by-around-2-to-3-tenths-of-a-degree [Accessed 22 Apr. 2023].
- www.gov.cn. (2023). New wind and solar power capacity hits record. [online] Available at: http://english.www.gov.cn/statecouncil/ministries/202302/14/content_WS63ead393c6d0a757729e6b8c.html.
- Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). (2023). China permits two new coal power plants per week in 2022. Available at: https://energyandcleanair.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/CREA_GEM_Press-release_China-permits-two-new-coal-power-plants-per-week-in-2022.pdf.
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