China, COP28 Post Mixed Progress in Curbing Climate Change

This week in Dubai, after two weeks of negotiations among representatives from almost 200 countries, the COP28 climate summit closed on a “historic” note: an agreement that calls for “transitioning away” from fossil fuels in order to avoid climate disaster. The deal was not without criticism, with some disappointed by the agreement’s relatively weak language, and others questioning China’s ambiguous climate commitments.

Leading China’s delegation was Zhao Yingmin, vice-minister of ecology and environment. He was flanked by his minister Huang Runqiu, special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua (due to retire in late December), U.N. undersecretary for general economic and social affairs and incoming special climate envoy Liu Zhenmin, and executive vice-premier Ding Xuexiang. China had the third-largest registered delegation, behind Brazil and host nation U.A.E. Among China’s party delegates, only 32 percent were estimated to be women, behind the overall COP28 average of 38 percent (47 percent of the U.S. delegation were women). 

Carbon Brief provided a round-up of Chinese activity at the summit, including its various side events at China’s country pavilion and its sub-summit on methane and non-CO2 greenhouse gasses, which signaled growing U.S.-China climate cooperation. On a more critical note, China did not pledge to the loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries hit hardest by the effects of climate change, and Chinese media coverage of the fund was muted. 

China also refused to commit to a pledge to triple renewable power capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, despite co-releasing the “Sunnylands statement” with the U.S. in November that called on both countries to pursue the first goal. Li Shuo, incoming China Climate Hub Director at the Asia Society Policy Institute, provided several reasons to explain why China ultimately did not sign up for this pledge:

First, Beijing is generally reluctant to sign side declarations and initiatives at the COP. This reluctance is based on China’s skepticism of the accountability of these side deals (most of them carry ambitious aspirations but fall short in implementation), and the view that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the party-driven multilateral decision-making process, should remain the central platform for decision making. Some of the side declarations at previous COPs also cut across the jurisdiction of multiple Chinese ministries, resulting in cumbersome approval processes not compatible with the high pace at the COP.

Second and ironically, China may face challenges in meeting the targets outlined in the Pledge because of its incumbent leading position. While analysts are highly confident in China’s ability to triple renewable energy capacity, there are two caveats to consider. If renewable energy is limited to only wind and solar, China will see rapid growth. However, the potential for further hydro and geothermal power growth, traditionally the largest low-carbon power capacity, is very limited. Base year, which is unspecified in the Pledge, is also important. China could triple its wind and solar capacity by 2030 based on 2022 data. However, if the base year is set for 2023, it is unlikely to happen. This is because of the astronomical renewable energy growth this year. [Source]

Lin Zi at China Dialogue noted that achieving higher energy efficiency would be a struggle for China

China Dialogue asked experts why China, despite being a world leader in renewables, has not signed. The general picture they gave is that the tripling is achievable, but the doubling is a sticking point. Energy efficiency is the size of an economy divided by its energy use. Although China has been making strides in cutting the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP, reducing this “energy intensity” a further 4% every year to 2030 would be extremely challenging. This is because China’s economy is still at a stage where it relies on energy-intense sectors such as heavy industry.

[…] One possible reason that China and India, biggest and fourth-biggest renewables generators respectively, did not sign the pledge is the bundling of the headline target of tripling renewables with doubling energy efficiency. Experts said the countries were keen not to over pledge and under deliver, aware that whatever targets they commit to, even if not binding on individual countries to achieve, may invite international pressure. [Source]

Another reason for China’s refusal to commit to the pledge may have been the pledge’s strong anti-coal language. Despite Xi Jinping’s promise to not build new coal-fired power projects abroad, China has been unable to shake its addiction to coal at home. Rachel Cheung at The Wire China described how China’s coal calculations are holding back the structural decline of its carbon emissions:

While China may have installed huge amounts of clean energy projects, the electricity they produce doesn’t always get transmitted to the country’s homes and workplaces, thanks to legacy issues with its grid and power markets. Unless Beijing can enact much needed reforms to the plumbing of its electricity system, highly polluting coal — the traditional bedrock of the country’s power generation — will retain an outsized role.

[…China] has made huge strides in scaling up its energy infrastructure, with plans ongoing to invest over 6 trillion yuan ($896 billion) between 2021 to 2025 to overhaul its state grid. But the reforms needed to integrate low-carbon energy into the system are far less advanced. [Source]

The lack of transparency does not help China in reducing its carbon emissions, either. Leading up to the summit, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy released a report on the climate disclosure regime in China, which is the key to creating systems for channeling capital towards companies invested in a low-carbon future. The report found that “disclosures by large, emissions-intensive Chinese firms tend to lag behind those of their international sector peers.” The report goes on to explain that these gaps are in part due to “the distinctive role of the party-state—a powerful owner-regulator-financier [that…] can directly express its disclosure expectations via regulation, making voluntary disclosures less meaningful.”

China’s positioning at COP28 demonstrated its attempts to court different countries from around the world, particularly in the Global South, and provide some cover for big oil and gas producers. This week, Faris Al-Sulayman and Jon B. Alterman published a brief for the Center for Strategic and International Studies analyzing how China has established itself as an essential partner in Gulf states’ energy transitions, facilitated by the region’s state-capitalist landscape:

The energy relationship between China and the Gulf states has evolved slowly from a relationship characterized by transactional trade to one that now includes large-scale reciprocal FDI in both conventional fossil fuel assets and increasingly in renewable energy assets that are the central pillars of the Gulf states’ energy transitions. A decade and a half of investment cooperation in the oil and gas sector afforded both sides opportunities to develop relationships and trust, which have been carried forward by a different set of state-owned firms into the renewables sector. China’s dominant position in the supply chain of both solar and wind projects has also amplified this trend. Moving beyond this pattern of reciprocal FDI in the energy sector, China and its Gulf partners have begun to develop projects jointly in other developing markets, signaling a further deepening of this economic relationship and growing alignment of economic and foreign policy priorities. [Source]

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