A matter of degrees
CHINA PREPARES TO HELP SHOW THE WAY TO A LOW-CARBON FUTURE AS WORLD LEADERS GATHER FOR UN ENVIRONMENTAL SUMMIT
Paris, still reeling from the recent terror attacks, is set to be the scene of another event of worldwide interest as the United Nations climate change summit is scheduled from Nov 30 to Dec 11. By Nov 24, 147 state and government leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, have confirmed their attendance at the event, which will focus on how the world reduces carbon emissions as part of its fight against climate change.
While world leaders are challenged to join together to fight terrorism, with attacks in Mali, Paris and Beirut leading the news, they also are called upon to fight another major global threat.
Unlike at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, global leaders are being asked to bring their political will to bear at the beginning of the two-week talks to avoid their involvement in the technical details at the final stage.
Observers say Xi’s attendance is of great importance after his season of globe-hopping appearances, which included weighing in at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the G20 leaders meeting in Turkey and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in the Philippines. Xi also has recently visited Washington and London, and leaders of France and Germany have exchanged ideas with him in Beijing. China’s president is flying to Johannesburg, South Africa, to attend the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation after Paris.
China watchers say that in Paris, Xi is anticipated to go beyond the detailed carbon reduction targets already promised by China. He also is expected to focus on China’s proactive role in meeting global challenges, offering more products and ideas, and increasing China’s say in global governance. He also is expected to talk about the transformation of China’s development pattern, and the evolution of its thinking on ecological civilization.
In pledges submitted to UN climate authorities over the summer, China said that, by 2030, it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 65 percent per unit of GDP from the level in 2005. The country also has said it will peak emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030 or before.
China will ensure the fulfillment of its pledges for cutting emissions regardless of the outcome of the Paris climate summit, according to Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change issues, speaking before his departure for the Paris talks.
He says China hopes that the delegates, from more than 190 countries, will reach an “ambitious, strong and legally binding” agreement.
The targets that China submitted to the UN in June were based on two years of scientific investigation, and the country will ensure the fulfillment of these targets no matter how difficult they may be, Xie says.
Any agreement reached in Paris will be judged on whether it is “equitable, effective and win-win”, according to Zou Ji, a professor at the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, a Beijing-based think tank created after the Copenhagen summit to support China’s climate talks.
“Of course, we hope the Paris meeting will generate an outcome, and we will actively contribute to that. But for China, transitioning to a low-carbon economy and reaching its goals is a must — there is no plan B,” Zou says.
Officials say they will make efforts toward an earlier peak by improving energy efficiency and adjusting China’s energy structure.
China has dwarfed all other countries in terms of clean-energy installations. It accounts for 25 percent of the world’s total installed capacity of renewable energy in the past five years, and its rapid development of wind and solar power has greatly reduced costs of renewable energies.
The package of goals submitted to the UN also includes boosting the share of nonfossil fuels in the primary energy mix to 20 percent by 2030, setting the tune for its energy structure transition.
“Such a size and pace for renewable-energy growth is unprecedented globally,” says He Jiankun, director of the Institute of Low-Carbon Economy at Tsinghua University.
China’s renewable energy target for 2030 would be equivalent to installing 10 1-million-kilowatt nuclear power units annually or 10 5-megawatt wind turbines every day between 2020 and 2030, He says.
“China faces a tougher challenge than developed countries to achieve the series of targets because it is in a different stage of development,” He says.
Most developed countries maintained an economic growth rate of between 2 and 3 percent when their emissions peaked. The United States, for example, reached its carbon emissions peak in 2005, and Japan in 2007.
Since China is expected to maintain a growth rate of 4 to 5 percent near 2030, it will have to keep its carbon emissions per unit of GDP lower than what the developed countries did to reach their emissions peak.
Conflicts between the economy and the environment remain for the country, which encompasses about 21 percent of the world’s population and has experienced rapid industrialization and urbanization.
If China can escape the old model of polluting first and then cleaning later, and decouple economic growth from environmental impact, it will provide a model for other developing countries, He says.
Last year saw the first decline in China’s coal output after 15 years of consecutive growth. Industries such as cement, power, steel and chemicals are facing overcapacity and more stringent environmental standards.
Things are changing as the economy entered the new normal, which means slower but more sustainable growth. Slowing production at major coal consumers has dragged down coal consumption.
China reported a 5.7 percent yearon-year decline in coal consumption in the first nine months of this year, after a 2.9 percent decline in 2014.
Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says coal production and coal imports in China peaked in 2013, and the rate of decline in both production and imports accelerated throughout 2014 and 2015.
While a single year or two is not sufficient to predict that China’s coal consumption will continue to fall, coal use has entered a steady status and will be on track to fall after 2020, says Tsinghua’s He.
Chinese leaders have stressed that cutting emissions “is not at others’ request but on our own initiative” and the promotion of clean energy and energy efficiency has been highlighted in proposals for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20).
Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, says it is a “fascinating moment in history” that has seen China incorporate eco-civilization into its future development path.
The country’s cumulative investment in promoting nonfossil fuels and developing low-carbon technologies is likely to exceed 40 trillion yuan ($6.2 trillion; 5.9 trillion euros) between 2015 and 2030, estimates the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, a think tank.
It is expected to create new opportunities in ecological restoration and renewable-energy technology, both for domestic and international companies.
In fact, China has attached great importance in transforming its development patters to shift away from energy- and resources-intensive models. Especially since President Xi
Tourists enjoy blue skies and floral displays in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing. China will ensure the fulfillment of its pledges for cutting emissions, officials say.
Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change issues
Janos Pasztor, United Nations’ assistant secretary-general on climate change
Samantha Smith, leader of the WWF Global Climate and Energy Initiative