How to process China's underwhelming climate pledge

How to process China's underwhelming climate pledge
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The most recent United Nations climate report warns that we are running out of time to mitigate the worst effects of manmade climate change. We need to bring greenhouse gas emissions to even lower levels than were agreed upon during the 2015 Paris climate talks. We need accelerated action from individuals, sectors, cities and countries.

China was highly expected to set an example in the form of an ambitious new emissions reduction pledge on the occasion of the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. However, China’s recently announced climate pledge changes little from what was promised last year. Observers and pundits expressed dismay about the relatively unambitious commitment from China — the world’s largest carbon-emitting nation since 2006 — for missing an opportunity to assume a leading role in shaping global action on climate change and setting a discouraging tone for the rest of the world going into the climate talks.

Policy signals from the highest levels of Chinese leadership are essential because they trickle down to lower echelons of provincial, city and county leadership for implementation. However, a lack of sustained strong signals is less worrying than the question of whether China possesses the capacity and will take the on-the-ground actions required to follow through on whatever climate commitments are made. After all, what gets implemented is what matters.

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Sufficient implementation will require enthusiastic and sustained local actions. Scholarship has informed us that human behaviors and policy implementation are heavily shaped by sets of incentives and constraints faced by relevant actors in pursuing their goals. Some goals may conflict with other goals. For instance, economic growth and environmental protection are often seen as being antithetical.

Effectively accelerating local decarbonization in China requires a clear understanding of who the relevant actors are and the incentives and constraints they face. Based on that, fostering the right incentives, clearly assigning responsibility and reducing potential ambiguity — in terms of both goals and the means to achieve those goals — will collectively prove conducive for the desired implementation. My research on how local political incentives in China have shaped regulatory actions on air pollution corroborates that insight. 

Specifically, reducing the ambiguity of means in stemming carbon emissions would require clear methodologies and procedures in inventorying carbon emissions, specifying how reduction happens for individual sectors, and maintaining accountability mechanisms.

Having a less-ambitious-than-expected national climate goal is not as bad as some may think, as high targets and strong incentives to achieve those targets — by any possible means — can sometimes backfire. An example is China’s recent large-scale power outage. For background information, it is essential to realize that China has in the past struggled to balance electricity supplies with demand, leaving some provinces at the risk of power outages. This problem becomes more acute during peak power consumption in the winter and summer.

However, other factors this year exacerbated the mismatch between power supply and demand. As the world reopens and the economy bounces back, demand for Chinese goods is surging. That means that the factories need a lot more power to make those goods. At the same time, coal production slowed, even when the country still generated more than half of its power from coal. This was due to Beijing’s carbon-neutral goal, which drove up the coal price. With higher coal prices and government control of electricity prices, coal-fired power plants reduced their supply to avoid economic losses. This sent large swaths of the country into power shortages. Some provinces became off-track for meeting their annual energy “dual-control” objectives (i.e., control in energy consumption and control in energy intensity) and have resorted to power rationing as a temporary way to get back on track towards those objectives. 

The quick, short-term fix of rationing power does not fix the power shortage problem in the long run. Effective solutions will include measures such as integrating more renewables into the grid. Nevertheless, China’s recent power outage offers a cautionary tale that decarbonizing faster than the system can handle can create unintended consequences. Mitigating the risk of these unintended consequences by acting with lower expressed ambitions but steadier steps may be the better strategy for the moment.

Hence, it is crucial that climate-minded observers look beyond official pronouncements and pledges to see what actions are being taken to translate China’s climate promises into action. If China’s national leadership proves unable to effectively align incentives and reduce ambiguity for the local officials who oversee the day-to-day work of reducing carbon emissions on the ground, even the most ambitious climate goals will be of little practical use.  

A deeper understanding of China’s internal political system, the need to balance competing priorities and China’s historical tendency to attempt to overdeliver on modest promises can provide some reassurance that even an unambitious international commitment can still be accompanied by the necessary change.

So, should we be worried about China’s new, less-ambitious-than-expected pledge?  Not necessarily — actions speak louder than words.

Dr. Shiran Victoria Shen is a political scientist and environmental engineer, a Hoover National Fellow, and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.