CLIMATE RESOLVE CHINESE-STYLE

Kim Feng Wong - May 07,2021

Some world leaders felt let down when Chinese President Xi Jinping simply reiterated the country’s climate commitments at the US climate summit in April. Yet perhaps the international community shouldn't expect splashy new pledges from China, and instead expect a slow start leading to methodical progress. Bold climate pledges can become -- in the words of US President Joe Biden -- just “a lot of hot air” if they don’t produce real results. Biden’s own pledge of a 50%-52% cut in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 on 2005 levels was a major commitment, for example, but is not enshrined in law and could be abandoned by a future administration (NE Apr.29'21). China, despite so far promising little to the rest of the world, is quietly formulating domestic policies for not just delivering, but beating its rather unimpressive official goals of peaking emissions around 2030 and attaining carbon neutrality by 2060.

“Concrete action plans” are now in the works for peaking emissions “earlier than 2030,” said Su Wei, deputy secretary-general of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, when addressing local and foreign media on Apr. 22 after Xi spoke at the US climate leaders’ summit. The “action plans” will target key industries including coal, power, iron and steel, petrochemicals and chemicals, nonferrous metals, construction, building materials, transport and agriculture, said Su.

In the context of China’s central planning political structure, such internal “action plans” or top-down directives are the preferred tool for pressuring large polluters, rather than grand pledges on the international stage. This is especially the case when it comes to getting state-owned polluters operating within the targeted sectors to accelerate decarbonization efforts.

Beijing’s resolve is evident in a draft action plan for the iron and steel industry that was formulated well before the US climate leaders’ summit (NE Apr.8'21). Under that plan, the mammoth sector is to flatten its emissions curve “before 2025,” or at least five years sooner than the national schedule of 2030. By 2030, it must cut 30% off its peak emissions level. China's iron and steel sector, which accounts for over 56% of global crude steel production capacity, is the first to be slapped with such “early emissions peaking” targets. It would presumably serve as a reference for other sectors named by Su.

Signs of Resolve

It's not just the national government displaying resolve, but industry and local actors, too. State-owned Baowu -- the world’s top steelmaker -- announced in January that it hopes to exceed the Beijing-imposed goals by “striving hard for a carbon peak in 2023.” Baowu’s “voluntary” commitment means it would top out on emissions two years ahead of the 2025 deadline set by Beijing for the full sector and seven years sooner than the 2030 date set for the nation as a whole.

The giant State Power Investment Corp. has joined Baowu in declaring an ambitious carbon peaking timetable of 2023. Other early-peak volunteers include another large state-owned power utility, Datang, which has embraced a 2025 target. In the oil and gas sector, PetroChina and Sinopec have vowed carbon neutrality by 2050, 10 years ahead of the official national goal.

Many Chinese cities and provinces are also feeling the heat from Beijing to decarbonize ahead of the official deadlines. The Shanghai municipal government, for example, pledged in January that the city would “ensure a carbon peak before 2025.” It set other quantitative goals such as capping the city’s annual coal consumption at 43 million tons and slashing coal’s share to 30% of primary energy consumption by 2025. The Beijing municipal government and the Guangdong provincial government -- to name but a few -- are expected to follow suit soon with similar commitments.

Matter of Pride

Since political will to exceed its Paris goals isn't lacking, why is China so resistant to formally ratcheting up its climate pledges on the international stage? The reasons may have a lot to do with national pride, or not losing “face.” Beijing is reluctant to be seen as caving in to international pressure or being “bossed” into submission by foreign powers on climate, just as it is on trade or political issues. Also, China has consistently favored an approach of “under-promising but over-delivering” -- a stance with mostly upside potential that has the added advantage of buying it time for working out implementation strategies.

Herculean Task

Although advocates of strong climate action say China's climate pledges aren't swift or bold enough to stop the worst of climate change, the country has a herculean task of getting to net zero by 2060 from its current status as the world’s top emitter (WEO Oct.7'20). Taking a small step forward, the National Energy Administration (NEA) has set a near-term target of cutting coal’s share in the national energy mix to “below 56% by the end of 2021,” from 56.8% last year. It also pledged to boost the ratio of wind and solar generation to 11% of total power output this year, up from 9.5% in 2020. By 2025, renewable energy is set to become “the mainstay source for meeting any growth in power consumption,” the NEA has promised.

Kimfeng Wong is a reporter at Energy Intelligence, based in Singapore.

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