COP26: China Strives for Actions Over Words

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China approaches climate action quite differently than Western leaders — aiming for modest promises but arguably strong, methodical implementation. This has been on clear display as COP26 sessions opened this week. The landmark talks in Glasgow kicked off with the noticeable absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who only delivered a written address without new or significantly stronger climate commitments. Amid criticisms from Western leaders and climate advocates, China is sticking largely to its own decarbonization schedule, only slightly improving on its Paris climate pledges that were updated and submitted just days before the COP26 opening. Rather, China believes in “taking concrete actions to deliver on promises” rather than “empty slogans or ambitious targets,” says the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) at a media briefing.

China is talking mainly about keeping global warming within 2°C, rather than the 1.5° target many other negotiators are now focusing on. China is also ramping up coal production in the near term to deal with the country’s immediate power crisis, sparking concerns this might weaken its decarbonization momentum, or set the country back in its carbon peaking and neutrality timetables. However, Xi offered assurances in his Oct. 30 speech to the G20 summit that “China will strive to peak its CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 ... we will honor our words with actions.”

Mild Improvements

The decarbonization of the country’s coal-dominated energy structure “cannot be achieved within a short time frame, it has to be a process,” Beijing noted in its updated Paris pledge or Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). Under the updated pledges, Beijing has upped the 2030 targeted non-fossil fuel ratio to 25% of China’s primary energy mix, from 20% previously. It also commits to cut carbon intensity — or the amount of CO2 emissions produced per unit of GDP — by “more than 65%” in 2030 from the 2005 level, a slightly steeper reduction than the “60%-65%” pledged previously.

The mild improvements suggest China remains committed, but won’t be rushed into a tighter decarbonization timetable that Beijing is uncomfortable with. Beijing is anxious to impose energy efficiency targets on industries as a means of cutting emissions, but does not want to stifle post-Covid-19 economic recovery while doing so. The emphasis during the near-term period until 2025 will be on “significantly boosting energy efficiency,” with the heavy lifting in emissions control likely to come only in the next five-year period of 2026-30, during which China would “control total energy consumption at a reasonable level.”

Action Plan

China has already crafted its Pre-2030 Carbon Peaking Action Plan, President Xi says in his written COP26 address. The plan will be backed by subsequent “implementation plans” tailored to key sectors and industries to ensure compliance, he adds. These plans will come with “clear timetables, road maps and implementation instructions” for carbon cutting strategies in the energy, industrial, construction and transport sectors, complete with technological and financial aids or incentives, according to Xi.

A draft action plan for the iron/steel industry had already surfaced earlier this year. Under that plan, the mammoth sector is to flatten its emissions curve “before 2025,” or at least five years sooner than the national schedule of 2030. It must also cut 30% off its peak emissions level by 2030. China's iron/steel sector, accounting for over 56% of global crude steel production capacity, is the first to be slapped with such “early emissions peaking” targets, which would presumably serve as a reference for other emissions-intensive sectors.  

Vast Vision

China has also launched an ambitious project to erect a combined 100 gigawatts of new wind/solar capacity in the vast desert areas of Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Shaanxi and Xinjiang. Work on the first batch — comprising nearly 30 GW — has kicked off during the second half of October, said the country’s top policy planner National Development and Reform Commission, but it did not provide further details. Technically available wind/solar resources in these areas account for 60% of the national total, according to the commission.

Track Records

Beijing’s emphasis on meeting targets over ambitious climate declarations takes a swipe at US President Joe Biden’s $555 billion climate spending plan. It has not yet received legislative backing from Congress and is expected to face bottlenecks from fierce political wrangling.

By contrast, China has a track record of exceeding its climate targets, although some might consider the Chinese targets weak to start with. “In 2020, China reduced carbon intensity by 48.4% on the 2005 level, which exceeded the official pledge of 40%-45%,” says MEE spokesman Ye Min. China also achieved a 15.9% ratio for non-fossil fuels (including nuclear) in its 2020 energy mix, exceeding the 15% official target, Ye adds.

In response to criticisms that China remains the world’s largest coal consumer, an MEE spokesman said the country’s coal dependence has already plunged from 72% of its primary energy mix in 2005 to 57% in 2020. In the past 10 years, China has phased out 120 GW of coal-fired power plants. In addition, “China is the world’s largest renewable energy capacity holder for six years running, with some 280 GW and 250 GW, respectively, in installed wind and solar generation capacity as of end-2020,” the spokesman added.

China's Climate Goals
TargetsLatest NDC (Oct 2021)Previous NDC (2015)Progress
Carbon Peakstrive to peak before 2030by around 2030--
Net-Zerostrive for carbon neutrality before 2060none--
2030 CO2 Emissions per Unit GDP more than 65% reduction from 2005 level60%-65% reduction from 2005 levelachieved 48.4% reduction in 2020
2030 Non-Fossil Fuels in Primary Energy Mixaround 25%around 20% achieved 15.9% ratio in 2020
China's Current Power Mix (as % of Electricity Output)
Fossil Fuels (Mainly Coal with some Gas)71%
Solar 4
Wind 8
Hydro 12
Source: China Electricity Council
China's Primary Energy Mix (as of 2020)
Non-Fossil Fuels15.9%
Source: National Bureau of Statistics

CO2 Emissions, Low-Carbon Policy, Renewable Electricity , Policy and Regulation
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