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China climate plans, commitment under focus
Many cannot imagine China – the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – taking the lead in setting climate goals. But if former US President Donald Trump returns to the White House, there is a chance that China could fill the gap in global climate leadership by announcing bold emissions-reduction targets for 2035
Li Shuo and Lauri Myllyvirta 4 May 2024

If former US President Donald Trump returns to the White House in 2025, China needs to step up to assume the mantle of global climate leadership – an outcome that many have considered impossible. After all, China has been the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases for nearly two decades, currently accounting for 35% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But geopolitical dynamics can shift quickly in the face of conflict, economic strife, and crucial elections, meaning that China could soon be seen in a new light.

In 2023, China’s long-time (and recently retired) climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, kept his cards close to his chest – the country was clearly not in the mood to make any major commitments. Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, the United States and China reached a headline-grabbing agreement to cooperate on climate change, but it included no binding targets. And while China agreed to launch a “transition away from fossil fuels” as part of the final COP28 deal, it is still hesitant to reduce its coal consumption.

But this may be the year that Chinese leadership plays its hand. By early 2025, countries must submit their next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris climate agreement, including emissions-reduction targets for 2035. Recent Chinese statements and policies suggest that internal debates about the new targets are underway. China faces notable challenges in setting ambitious climate goals, but doing so is in the country’s economic and political interests.

This would not be the first time that Chinese President Xi Jinping injected significant momentum into global climate action. In 2014, Xi and then-US President Barack Obama jointly announced their initial carbon-reduction commitments ahead of the historic 2015 Paris climate conference. And in 2020, Xi pledged that China would reach peak emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.

The increasingly volatile global environment and China’s current economic weakness pose significant challenges. After an upswing in emissions during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, the country has fallen short of its carbon-intensity target – a measure of emissions per unit of GDP – for 2025, and will have to cut emissions in absolute terms to meet it. Until recently, policymakers had assumed that emissions would increase until around 2028. Further complicating the NDC development process is China’s continued reliance on coal: in recent years, the government has approved a host of new coal-fired power plants to increase energy security.

Geopolitical considerations will surely shape China’s decision, too. Chinese policymakers will patiently weigh their options until the US election in November. A Trump victory might mean less climate pressure on Beijing from the US. But China should act more proactively in filling the global leadership gap left by the US.

There are good reasons for Beijing to step up the climate game. China’s massive investment in clean energy manufacturing has started to drive growth. By establishing itself as the world’s main supplier of solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles and other green technologies, China has aligned its decarbonization agenda with its economic interests, presenting a strategic opportunity for the country to position itself at the forefront of sustainable modernization.

This clean energy blitz could facilitate China’s CO2 emissions reduction in 2024, raising the possibility of emissions peaking long before 2030. And if China can hit this target before 2025, it could achieve substantial emissions reductions by 2035, the same year that it aims to become a moderately developed country. In fact, as China is already well on its way to this status, it should specify an absolute emissions-reduction target for 2035 – a goal that only a few developing countries have set so far.

Chinese policymakers face difficult choices in setting climate goals. Some appear technical but have significant implications for environmental outcomes. One example is the selection of a base year for emissions measurements. Setting a percentage target for reducing emissions from a still-undefined peak to 2035 might seem rational, but it could create a perverse incentive for industries close to meeting their targets to delay peak emissions. Such an approach would also create uncertainty about China’s emissions in 2035, as the peak from which emissions will be reduced may not be immediately clear.

Using a historical base year, such as 2020 or 2015, would be much more straightforward but could lead to an unnecessarily conservative target, given China’s large-scale investment in coal and the lack of clarity about its emissions trajectory. For example, if the country’s recent economic slowdown causes its emissions to plateau, such a target would require minimal climate action after 2030. But the world needs a more ambitious approach from China. Turning China’s commitment to reduce coal consumption from 2026 onward into a measurable coal-reduction target for 2030 would effectively limit emissions increases.

Over the coming year, all eyes will be on China to see how it negotiates the complexities of setting new NDC commitments. If the authorities decide to pursue an ambitious strategy, they could end up accelerating the domestic energy transition, which is already providing a much-needed economic boost, while taking a leading role in the global fight against climate change.

Li Shuo is the director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and Lauri Myllyvirta is a non-resident senior fellow at the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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