The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China is key to saving the planet from climate change. But it can’t quit coal.

People wade through a flooded street in Zhengzhou, China, on July 22. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

This summer, the rains in Beijing felt as if they would never stop. In July, they forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights. Tourist sites closed, and residents struggled to commute to work. In August, Ellery Lee, an energy and climate change consultant in the capital, was drenched walking through a downpour. Once home, he was shocked to see news that two people had drowned after getting trapped under a bridge in the city’s outskirts.

“Climate change is coming closer and closer to our lives,” he said, reflecting on deadly floods in central China, hotter temperatures across the country and abnormally heavy rains in the typically dry north.

Ahead of a crucial climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, all eyes are on China.

At the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that his nation would no longer finance coal projects in other countries, and would redirect its support to green and low-carbon energy, following similar vows earlier this year by Japan and South Korea, a priority for American climate negotiators.

China has in any case been scaling back assistance for large numbers of coal-fired power plants that were being built abroad as part of China’s development program called the Belt and Road Initiative. As many as half of 52 plants launched since 2014 have been shelved, including one in Zimbabwe that China’s Industrial and Commercial Bank abandoned in June.

It remains unclear what will happen to coal plant construction still in progress.

But David Sandalow, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s center for global energy and a former official at the State and Energy departments, said that “closing the spigot matters” and that it would send “a strong signal to power developers around the world that any new coal power plants would face significant head winds in the years ahead.”

With China as the world’s largest carbon emitter, home to 1.4 billion people and a still-expanding economy, the nation’s strategy for cutting emissions could be the most important factor in whether countries are able to prevent irreversible and catastrophic damage to the Earth.

The Chinese leadership has pledged to reach peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. But it must balance competing priorities, including overhauling an entrenched economic model reliant on heavy industry and managing growth in a pandemic. Authorities must also demonstrate to the Chinese public that drastic moves to curb emissions are in the interest of the country and not the result of pressure from the West, especially the United States.

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“There is a very delicate tension between doing this individually and sending the signal that we are doing this for our self-interest and not doing something for the United States,” said Li Shuo, a senior adviser at Greenpeace East Asia based in Beijing.

President Xi Jinping announced his “dual carbon goals” last September, following up with pledges to “phase down” the use of coal starting in 2026 and appointing a leading group to measure emissions. In July, China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said the 2060 goal meant neutralizing greenhouse gases from all sectors of the economy, not just carbon dioxide.

Ahead of the Conference of Parties, or COP26 as the climate conference is known, the government is preparing a plan called the “1+N” framework for achieving carbon neutrality. Climate advocates were watching for the release of more information, possibly on Tuesday, when Xi is scheduled to speak at the U.N. General Assembly.

China’s climate pledges come as the country’s emissions and fleet of coal-fired power plants have grown during the economic recovery from the pandemic. Ahead of the 2030 deadline, heavy industries are also racing to get carbon-intensive projects approved before limits are put in place, or “charging to the peak,” a practice Chinese officials have denounced.

Even after factoring in the plants retired in 2020, China’s coal-fired fleet capacity last year rose by a net 29.8 gigawatts, more than the cuts made by the rest of the world, according to research released by Global Energy Monitor, a U.S. think tank, and the Helsinki-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). In the first quarter of this year, China’s carbon dioxide emissions were 9 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to CREA.

“The big open questions are: When exactly are emissions going to peak before 2030, and at what level are they going to peak?” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a researcher at CREA. “Having China’s emissions increase just doesn’t add up, even if the leadership is saying they are going to do a lot after 2030,” he said.

Chinese greenhouse gas emissions now larger than those of developed countries combined

Within China, observers are also waiting for details as to how authorities plan to maintain growth while transforming the economy, especially a state-owned sector known for carbon-intensive industries such as steel, cement and aluminum.

“We want to see what this peak level will be . . . what is the total target?” said Liu Zhe, director of research, data and innovation at World Resources Institute China.

The central government is promoting a policy of “build first, destroy later,” or building up renewable energy capacity before decommissioning fossil-fuel sources. Yet coal, still much cheaper than renewables in China, accounts for almost 70 percent of the country’s power generation.

“Cutting emissions comes with a cost, which is GDP. The question is how much of a cost does the Chinese government want to pay,” said Yu Lihong, professor at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai focusing on energy and economics.

“Getting rid of coal in 20 or 30 years will be very difficult. I think even within 50 years is difficult. Coal’s presence is too big,” she said.

Finding the oasis

Divisions between the world’s two largest emitters complicate prospects of success in Glasgow. When President Barack Obama and Xi sealed a deal to limit their countries’ carbon dioxide emissions in 2014, a full year before the Paris climate summit, it gave both leaders a diplomatic and environmental victory and provided cover for other countries to follow with their own pledges.

Less than six weeks before the Glasgow talks, the United States and China have not forged a new agreement. Instead, the relationship is riven by disputes over forced labor and other abuses in Xinjiang, a crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, the status of Taiwan and Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, among other hot-button issues.

During U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry’s visit to Tianjin this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that climate collaboration could not be an “oasis” in the broader context of deteriorating U.S.-China ties. “If the oasis is surrounded by desert, sooner or later the oasis will also become desert,” Wang said, citing sanctions on Chinese officials and U.S. efforts to extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as sticking points.

Kerry told The Washington Post that Chinese officials also pushed for the United States to lift sanctions on solar panel makers in exchange for cooperation on climate change.

But President Biden has brought on two top Asia advisers, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, who are unlikely to yield to China. Campbell wrote about a U.S. “pivot” toward Asia to balance China. Doshi has a newly released book, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.”

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“With China, tensions are higher than at any time in decades,” Sandalow said. “It does not augur well for bilateral cooperation on climate change. It makes it much more difficult. Not impossible, but much more difficult.”

Still, some are optimistic that Xi brought Xie, the climate negotiator, out of retirement to oversee China’s strategy. “If anyone can reach an agreement, Secretary Kerry and Minister Xie can,” Sandalow said.

In other areas, China has been aggressive about climate action. It is the world’s largest electric vehicle market. The country plans to install up to 65 gigawatts of solar power capacity this year, according to China’s solar manufacturing association. In July, the country established the world’s largest carbon-trading system, which Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, described as “important symbolically.”

The price of carbon in the program was less than $8 a ton. Most climate economists believe the price of carbon must reach more than $100 a ton. “Eventually I think it’s going to have its impact,” Ma said.

Authorities must also contend with skepticism among the general public. Although China is vulnerable to climate change — from its densely populated coastal cities, export hubs and ports to regions prone to floods and drought — the public has not experienced the kind of broad-based climate awakening seen in other countries.

Critics from patriotic bloggers to academics go as far as claiming China’s leaders have been hoodwinked by Western counterparts trying to hold China back. Limited public awareness of the climate crisis means authorities must tread a fine line, according to Dimitri de Boer, chief representative of the ClientEarth nonprofit’s Beijing office.

“It would be quite dangerous if there was a perception among the Chinese public that the Chinese government is doing this because it is being pushed into it by foreign actors,” de Boer said.

“For a lot of people in China, it’s still a distant thing. The government says we should [take action], but they don’t understand why or how.”

Pei Lin Wu and Alicia Chen in Taipei contributed to this report.

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