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Promises hold up half the sky - What China’s climate pledges are doing to, and for, the world

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

In this Briefing, third-year BSc International Relations and Chinese Student Johan Riis Jeanniot discusses the effectiveness and impact of China's climate pledge. This article was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Blog Editor).


Two years have passed since Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the country’s 2060 carbon neutrality target. The pledge, itself a major victory considering the politburo's reluctance to commit to a specific number, has resulted in a proliferation of meaningful climate policy within the PRC, affecting both domestic and international policy. 2021 and 2022 have however reoriented an already limited emphasis away from climate change and on to national security concerns, as ultimately highlighted by the Work Report presented at the start of the recently concluded National Party Congress. The question however remains whether the pledge and associated policy framework have resulted in consistent and persistent momentum. In short, how is the pledge progressing two years on, and what impact these pledges are having on the rest of the world’s greening effort?

China’s climate pledge and its outlook

China’s current climate pledge differs from the ones announced by the US and EU, two of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. Most notably, the Chinese pledge is a carbon neutrality pledge, not a climate neutrality pledge, meaning that reductions on non-carbon emissions are not covered. The main benefactor of this is the agricultural sector of China, with emissions from livestock and fertilizer not being covered by the government’s plan.

Central in the CCP’s understanding of its carbon pledges is the “Common, but differentiated responsibilities” principle of the COP15 agreement. The principle acknowledges that developing nations such as itself with less historical emissions have a less urgent burden of achieving carbon neutrality.

This is the main justification for the current pledge’s caveat that China’s emissions will continue to rise, peaking ‘before 2030’, while lowering the carbon cost per unit of GDP by 65% compared to 2005. The current pledge only outlines a decline in absolute emissions following this. The 2030 and 2060 goals are known in conjunction as the ‘dual carbon’ goals. The dual carbon goals has been characterized as ‘highly insufficient’ with regards to the Paris Agreement to keep global temperature increases under 2 degrees, and would likely lead to a total rise in global temperatures by three degrees, given all countries followed a similar plan.

Additionally, the announcement of the carbon neutrality pledge was both preceded and proceeded by Covid-19 and associated stimulus measures to stabilize the Chinese economy. These included generous funding for new energy infrastructure, with just under $100 billion to support the energy sector, with only 20% being earmarked for supporting clean energy This remains almost less than ⅓ of what was earmarked for fossil fuels. Broader analysis of financing for the energy transitions reveal that China will need to invest $14.725 trillion in total to reach its 2060 pledge, with an annual investment of $490 billion per year. This is more than was spent globally so far on the Covid 19 pandemic, and each year will constitute 60% of the annual US’ budget. While the central government is doing much to encourage green finance, raising $39 billion through domestic sale of green bonds in 2019 alone, the amounts remains insufficient.

One notable thing about Chinese central policy initiatives are that the local institutions implementing them are often expected to overachieve their goals, and as such, Beijing policy goals are modest in explicit goals. Indeed, the 2030 goal was projected to be significantly overachieved, and continues to be so despite a ‘doubling down’ on coal during the pandemic. While a ‘better than not good enough’ result isn’t great news for the climate, setting attainable policy objectives certainly is a deviation from the countless ‘hockey-stick’ pledges made, where the bulk of progress will happen just before the finish line.

Chinese Green Tech and international cooperation

China’s slow, but steady pivot towards sustainability does have an effect on the rest of the world besides its emissions reductions. The average cost of Solar panels have dropped almost 80% since 1998. Most of this is due to generous government subsidies to Chinese firms developing the technology. Developments such as this have taken the technology from a fringe source of energy that was profitable only under specific conditions, and made it into a source of energy that is competitive with fossil fuels without the use of subsidies. This is indicative of a wider trend of deliberate state-supported domestic technological innovation within China, benefiting the rest of the world.

A large part of this success is due to focused government intervention in both the development and implementation of green technologies. For example, between 2012 and 2013, the amount of funding earmarked for green technologies within the “National High-Tech R&D Program” increased from 9.7% to 14.8%. Chinese patents in green tech increased by 42.000 between 2005 and 2015, and was up 6000% in 2014 compared to 1990. There however is still room for growth, Chinese patents in green technology still make up less of total new patents than in the EU/US.

This spillover is also visible in other aspects of China’s engagement in the world. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a major part of China’s international investment policy, has undergone a major ‘greening’ of its ambitions, with the 2017 signing of Green Investment Principles and the 2018 launch of the Belt and Road International Green Development Coalition. Both of these initiatives were developed and launched in response to pushback from recipient states over the carbon-intensiveness of BRI projects, with projects being canceled in both Kenya and Pakistan. These ‘greening’ efforts were meant to bring the BRI into the Sustainable Development Goals regime, and promote China’s role as an ‘Ecological Civilization’ - a slogan initially inserted into the Chinese constitution in 2017, and since launched internationally last year at the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Kunming, the first UN climate conference within the country. While the effect of these pledges have yet to take effect, a ban on the construction of overseas coal powered power plants has, and while those power plants already planned are finishing construction, the flow of Chinese capital and project agreements has been stemmed.

The mention of the dual carbon goals in the work report of the 20th Party Congress demonstrates its prominent role in the CCP’s policy plans. However, Xi’s pledge to ‘Establish the new before demolishing the old’ in regards to clean energy and coal also signals that Coal will continue to play the prominent role it plays in China’s energy supply today.

A noteworthy point here is that due to the low relative age of China’s power plants, they are relatively more climate friendly that the US’: “By 2020, every existing coal-fired power unit in China must meet an efficiency standard of 310 grams of coal equivalent per kilowatt-hour; any units that do not meet that standard by 2020 will be retired. In contrast, none of the current top 100 most efficient U.S. coal-fired power units would meet that same efficiency standard today”

How does climate fit into Beijing’s policy priorities

While many of these measures and pledges on the whole sound positive, Beijing has time and time again shown that climate measures are subordinate to what it considers national security. Namely China’s continuous reaffirmation of US-China climate cooperation being conditional on leniency on topics such as human rights. Additionally, the year for the 2060 pledge might be a strategic choice, allowing Beijing to remain flexible in their commitment to the pledge, while still achieving their economic 2049 goal “to build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious”, in celebration of 100 years of communist rule. Whether or not the current pledges will be revised and made more ambitious will depend entirely on Xi Jinping, and whether he will double down on his ‘Ecological Civilization’ mantra as a soft-power tool, or prioritize national security concerns, and the economy. The fact that Xie Zhenhua, China’s veteran COP envoy, is set to participate at COP27, certainly promotes the idea that climate policy will not diminish in importance for Beijing.

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