China’s emissions now eclipse the developed world — preventing climate protection

At the recent White House climate change summit President Biden made the extraordinarily ambitious pledge of reducing U.S. emissions by 50 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. This commitment once again placed the United States in the vanguard of climate protection and, along with significant actions by Europe and other U.S. allies, represents the true beginning of long-term reductions in emissions globally.

Except for one thing: Chinese emissions continue to grow. China risks undercutting all of the immense climate progress made by other major nations around the world. This reality was made painfully clear in a new report released by the Rhodium Group just last week. The groundbreaking study found that Chinese emissions alone in 2019 were enormous — larger than those of the entire developed world as a whole. This stunning fact, although long forecast by this writer and other experts, threatens to undercut global momentum to address climate change at just the very moment when political support is growing almost everywhere else.

Even more worrisome, China’s growing emissions will make reaching net zero global emissions by 2050 within the Paris Agreement more difficult, and could trigger global tipping points in natural systems that would make cataclysmic climate change far more likely to occur.

It is now clear that China used the disastrous Trump-era hiatus in U.S. climate leadership to ramp up coal production and use at home and abroad. Last year alone, the Chinese built three times the coal of the rest of the world combined. And China is constructing or planning, they say, the equivalent of another 300 large new coal plants. The U.S. has not built a single new coal plant over a decade, nor have most other Western nations, all of which are in fact closing coal plants at a rapid pace. In addition to domestic coal builds, many of the Chinese plants would be constructed abroad, subsidizing high-emitting technology for developing countries, a perverse way to buy influence.

China has made much of its pledge to be zero-emitting 40 years from now, in 2060. But in 2020, Chinese emissions were more than a quarter of the global total at 27 percent, two and half times those of the U.S, the next largest at 11 percent, the new data shows. China’s current proposal under the Paris climate agreement allows its emissions to continue to grow for the next decade, effectively preventing global emissions from falling, even as climate scientists warn this is precisely what must occur to prevent possible climate catastrophe.

At the White House climate summit, China claimed it would begin to “strictly limit” coal consumption over the next five years, and then reduce coal emissions in absolute terms by 2025. As hopeful as this language sounds, it masks the reality that in the next five years, China says it will construct 300 more large new coal plants, locking in decades of new, high emissions.

The Biden administration should challenge China directly on this point, confronting Beijing with the fact that with such a massive coal construction buildout would violate their just-made own promise to “strictly limit” coal over the next half-decade. Yet even here, some analysts believe that these coal build “plans” by China are purposefully over-scale, since current Chinese coal plants run at less than 50 percent capacity. This suggests China could be yet again gaming expectations, intent on claiming they are sacrificing coal builds they never intended to construct in the first place. Nonetheless, China gets more than half its power from coal today, despite many years of warnings about the need to reduce emissions.

Indeed, the U.S. can help China reduce its coal and carbon emissions by providing lower-emitting US LNG gas imports to fulfill some of China’s baseload power. Not only would this gas displace more carbon intensive Chinese coal, but U.S. LNG has far lower methane emissions than Russian gas, which the Chinese have also begun using. Gas from Russia’s notorious leaky Gazprom system not only helps prop up the increasingly domestically repressive and internationally dangerous Vladimir Putin, but Russian gas has methane emissions three or four times that of low-emitting US gas, so U.S. gas is preferable on climate grounds.

More broadly, there are serious political risks for China in its disingenuous attempts to game global climate policies. Climate integrity is becoming the benchmark measure of international citizenship. If the Chinese continue to game various loopholes in emissions reductions, they risk a fierce backlash by the very developing nations and others they are trying to win over. 

And it is important not to lose sight of China’s own incredible vulnerability to domestic climate change impacts. Its coastlines are tremendously susceptible to sea-level rise, and tens of millions of its citizens could face displacement in coming decades. China’s long-term water supply, flood control and agricultural production are likewise threatened by gradual reductions in water from the Tibetan plateau glaciers that are melting at an unprecedented rate, as well as by climate change-induced droughts. As China’s autocratic leaders are intensely aware, the inability to control floods and famine domestically has historically threatened the stability and hold on power, and could so again for Communist Party leaders.

Whatever China’s domestic weaknesses regarding climate, it’s clear that the U.S. must work closely with its European allies and others to finally force China to commit to reducing its overall emissions levels in absolute terms no later than 2025. The Biden team is entirely aware of this exigency, as witnessed by the statements of former Secretary of State and climate envoy John Kerry, the first American official from the new administration to visit China.

If China resists efforts by the rest of the world in coming months ahead of the COP 26 United Nations climate negotiations in Scotland to commit to emissions cuts, the U.S. and its allies have a wide range of possible trade, technology, energy, security, diplomatic and other options in response. Kerry has urged China to “compartmentalize” climate negotiations apart from such issues. But the longer China’s emissions grow, the longer it prevents global emissions from falling and delays effective climate protection — the more severe will be the responses from the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Paul Bledsoe is strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute and a professorial lecturer at American University Center for Environmental Policy. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton.

Tags Bill Clinton China Climate change CO2 emissions Global warming Greenhouse gas Greenhouse gas emissions by China Joe Biden John Kerry Paris agreement Paul Bledsoe Vladimir Putin White House
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