China and COP26

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COP26 is underway. 200 countries and up to 25,000 thousand people met in Glasgow this week to discuss the ever-pressing issue of climate change. This conference is the first one to feature the ‘ratchet mechanism’ – a proposal outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement whereby countries are expected to submit new targets for reducing emissions. Whether this conference will be considered a success is yet to be seen, but many have already criticised the response of one country in particular – China.

China has been the largest total emitter of carbon dioxide since 2006. This is in part because of their population. Looking at emissions per person, China’s seven tons is minimal compared to the US’ fifteen – and does not come close to Qatar’s thirty-seven tons as the largest per capita emitter. But it would be wrong to suggest that this alone takes China off the hook. Whilst a population of 1.4 billion can explain their larger emissions, it does not change the fact that as the largest total emitter China’s climate policies are crucial for any global effort towards minimising climate change.

Coal is at the heart of China’s climate problem

Therefore, the release of their updated pledges on the 28th of October was followed by intense scrutiny. China’s new plans are to reach peak emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero (taking in as much as they are putting out) by 2060. Whilst this is a minor improvement on the previous goal, the goal for net zero remains ten years later than both the US and UK’s current target of 2050. Climate Action Tracker, an independent group of scientists and policy experts, has stated that China’s policies and targets are not compatible with the 1.5°C limit that was agreed upon in Paris.

Coal is at the heart of China’s climate problem. Endowed with plentiful coal reserves, it has been burning through them for decades, and climate-friendly announcements such as the pledge to stop building coal power plants abroad are hindered by the sixty new coal plants currently under construction within China. China’s large manufacturing and agricultural sectors make a significant impact on their emissions.

This is not to say that China is doing nothing. It is the world’s largest producer of renewable energy – it produced more solar power and installed three times more wind power plants than any other country in 2020. But we must see these efforts in context: fossil fuels still make up 85% of the country’s energy mix. In contrast, the US hovers around 60% and the UK around 40%. China’s size is undoubtedly a hindrance to their climate policies, but they could easily do more.

Climate change is becoming a blame game

There is a risk, however, that China becomes the scapegoat of climate change, as criticism of its policies overshadows the insufficient efforts of many others. China, USA, India, Russia, and Japan were the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in 2019. The Climate Action Tracker rates the USA and Japan as insufficient, China and India as highly insufficient, and Russia as critically insufficient. There is, quite rightly, a particular focus on China as the largest emitter – but we must be careful that this focus does not allow other major contributors to slip through the net. India is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the USA and has recently announced an even later net-zero date of 2070, asking for $1 trillion in ‘climate finance’ and arguing that the responsibility lies with the nations who have historically been responsible for emissions.

Can we incentivise countries such as China and India to change their policies? Some might suggest a heavy-handed approach of sanctions to force China’s hand, but experience suggests this is often futile. One could take India’s argument – perhaps the US and UK have a responsibility to fund renewable energy in China and India? Such commitment would certainly be welcomed. But there is no guarantee China would accept this help, and even less than any developed nation would commit significant funding.

Climate change is becoming a blame game – we just need to make sure that blame is being levelled in the right direction. Criticism of China is entirely warranted, but not if it turns into scapegoating.  

Image credit: nznationalparty via Creative Commons.

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