Tracing China’s climate change journey from denial to decarbonisation

Jane Cai
·11-min read

Ahead of this week’s summit of global leaders to discuss ways of tackling climate change, a series by the South China Morning Post looks into how attitudes have changed among China’s leadership, the challenges faced by the world’s largest polluter and what we can expect from Thursday’s meeting.

At this year’s Earth Day on Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to join a virtual meeting of global leaders hosted by his US counterpart Joe Biden to discuss climate change. Ahead of the summit, Beijing and Washington issued a joint statement pledging to work together to uphold the Paris Agreement on climate change.

They are the latest steps in China’s long journey from climate denialism to decarbonisation and follow September’s milestone when Xi surprised a United Nations assembly by announcing an ambitious goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

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China is responsible for around 28 per cent of CO2 emissions – more than the US and EU combined – and has had the world’s largest carbon footprint since 2004. For decades, Beijing rejected the notion of climate change and argued for deferred emission reduction obligations as a developing country.

There are profound political and economic motives for China’s recent adaptation to the challenging reality of climate change, including unprecedented public anger over the country’s worsening pollution levels – China is also the world’s worst polluter – which was the catalyst for its embrace of the clean energy sectors for sustainable economic growth.

China is also eager to boost its image as a responsible global power and become a rule setter in green technologies by committing more to the climate issue. The country is also keen to reset its relationship with the US, which has plunged to the lowest point in half a century.

“It wasn’t an overnight conversion or random decision,” said George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, referring to Beijing’s embrace of the 2060 target. “It’s the culmination of an incremental shift in thinking that’s been going on for a decade or longer.”

Conspiracy theories about climate change dominated China’s narrative from the 1990s, when the country was relying on coal, steel and other high-carbon industries to pump up its economy. Talk in the West about carbon mitigation to address a warming planet was regarded as a ploy to contain China’s development.

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In October 1997, China rolled out the red carpet for Lee Raymond, former CEO of ExxonMobil, who attended the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing. A fierce critic of climate change, the US tycoon gave a speech in which he asserted the world’s climate was not changing and, even if it was, fossil fuels played no part.

In the following decade, Raymond frequently visited China, signing investment contracts worth billions of US dollars in the eastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang with local governments and state-owned enterprises. In June 2002, he was invited by then president Jiang Zemin to Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s former imperial garden that is now the headquarters of the Chinese leadership, where fulsome compliments were exchanged, according to state news agency Xinhua.

In 2008, an article by Zhai Yong from the environment and resource protection committee of the National People’s Congress, argued that an increasing number of Western countries were politicising the climate issue to contain China’s economic and political rise.

Nevertheless, by 2009, China had lowered energy consumption per unit of GDP by 13 per cent from 2005 – the equivalent of cutting CO2 emissions by 800 million tonnes. Between 2005 and 2008, the country’s renewable energy capacity increased by 51 per cent, representing an annual growth rate of 14.7 per cent, according to official data.

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Then premier Wen Jiabao lauded China’s progress at that year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen but refused to accept the same emission reduction goals as developed countries, saying China had to take care of its “economy and people’s livelihoods”. The talks ended in failure, with many Western countries blaming the Chinese delegation’s stance for the watered down “recognition” for the scientific case for limiting temperature rises to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, rather than a commitment.

After Copenhagen, conflicts surrounding China’s response to climate change eased, until air pollution became a top source of public grievance. In November 2010, Beijing’s air quality was described by the US embassy as “crazy bad” when the PM2.5 air quality index – which measures the most harmful small particles and is a key indicator of air pollution – exceeded 500 for the first time. The level was later changed to “beyond index” and recurred in February, October and December 2011.

“The smog crisis 10 years ago was the first time the government set mandates for provinces to reduce coal consumption in absolute terms,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst with Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

“It paved the way for the current ambition to dramatically reduce coal use nationwide as a part of the carbon neutrality pledge, and certainly changed the conversation around energy by, for the first time, questioning China’s heavy reliance on coal,” he said.

Leading respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan, who is also president of the China Medical Association, warned in 2012 that air pollution could become China’s biggest health threat, leading to lung cancer and cardiovascular illnesses.

After record-high air pollution in northern China in 2012 and 2013, the State Council issued an action plan to reduce coal consumption by closing polluting mills, factories, and smelters, and switching to other eco-friendly energy sources. Coal consumption has been decreasing slightly or remained largely flat since then but China continues to consume more coal than the rest of the world combined.

China cut its coal use to 56.8 per cent of energy consumption at the end of 2020, maintaining its target of below 58 per cent, but overall coal consumption continued to rise amid record industrial output and the completion of dozens of coal-fired power plants.

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“China runs a high environmental deficit after decades of development with heavy reliance on polluting industries,” said Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia. “From air pollution to water, soil pollution, when smog made international headlines frequently, China realised it was time to pay for the liabilities.”

“There’s also intrinsic demand to transform the economic model. The authorities gradually realised that carbon emissions are not totally contrary to economic development. By embracing services and environmental friendly industries, it can develop a higher quality economy,” he said.

Chen Daoyin, an independent political analyst and former Shanghai University professor, said the Communist Party’s “power system to maintain stability” meant pollution and deteriorating living standards were not a crucial challenge. “However, environmental damage hampers the sustainability of China’s economic development, which would pose a threat to the party’s legitimacy, so the authorities are motivated to restructure the economy and accommodate environmental requirements,” he said.

With a rapidly ageing population and slowing economic growth, China under Xi needed to find a new base of public support. Since 2017, the emphasis has been on making people happier, with political priorities switching to fighting corruption, eliminating poverty and fighting pollution.

Switching to new economies also makes perfect sense for China, which can compete on an equal footing – and may even enjoy an advantage – in emerging sectors like electric vehicles, solar and wind power, nuclear power, high voltage transmission, and new railways.

“Undoubtedly, China is already the most important player in advanced manufacturing in the new energy sector, as well as the biggest market,” said Lin Boqiang, dean of Xiamen University’s China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy. “China will boost development in renewable energies in the coming decade to embrace green targets, however, before the new clean energies become stable enough, China will continue to mainly rely on coal-fired plants to satisfy growing power demand for the next five years.”

China accounted for 30 per cent of the global renewable energy market in 2018, followed by the US with a 10 per cent share. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, electricity generated in China by wind and solar power expanded significantly in the past decade. Last year, China and the US were the two outstanding growth markets for renewable energies. China added 136 gigawatts, with the bulk coming from 72GW of wind and 49GW of solar. The US installed 29GW of renewables last year, nearly 80 per cent more than in 2019.

China is already the biggest producer of electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, and the third and fourth generation of nuclear reactors. It is also the biggest market for electric car companies like Tesla.

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Interestingly, Elon Musk, CEO of US electric car maker Tesla, is receiving the same red carpet treatment Beijing gave to senior executives of the old fossil economy two decades ago. In January 2019, Musk was invited to Zhongnanhai for a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang, after China approved the incorporation of the country’s first solely-owned foreign car company with investment of 50 billion yuan (US$7.6 billion).

It only took around six months for Tesla to obtain approvals to start construction on its Shanghai plant with an annual capacity of 500,000 electric cars, underscoring China’s zest for the new “green” cars after a decade of limited technological progress from the heavily subsidised domestic sector.

To highlight China’s enthusiasm, Li also offered Musk a “green card” to facilitate the entrepreneur’s visits to China, a privilege enjoyed by an elite group of foreigners, including several Nobel laureates.

According to Xinhua, Musk vowed to make the Shanghai plant one of the most advanced in the world, while Li hoped the company would be “a participant of China’s deepening reforms and opening-up” and “propeller for the steady development of Sino-US relations” – in the middle of the trade war initiated by former US president Donald Trump.

An expert with a state energy research institute, who asked not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to non-mainland media, said China was also aiming to set future standards, rules and regulations for green technologies, finance and carbon trading.

“Most of the standards are set by the US and EU, but if China can seize this opportunity, it can become a rule-setter. It is potentially the new engine of China’s growth,” the researcher said.

Lin, from Xiamen University, said China had been consistent in its attitude towards climate change. “China always shares the responsibility. As a developing country, our target may not be as ambitious as that of the EU. However, China is consistent in advocating tackling the global issue, unlike the US making U-turns in its policies,” he said.

Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said China’s shift in development strategies had arisen primarily from domestic concerns and priorities, but also reflected its ambition to be a global leader on the climate change issue.

“Climate change is one of the issues China, the EU and the US all agree to tackle right now. It provides a great opportunity for China and other powers to cooperate and reset their relationships. Cooperation on climate change is vital now as China and the West are having difficulties in many aspects of their relationships,” he said.

Magnus, from Oxford, said China was determined to shape the world system in the decades ahead. “The significance of climate change means it wants a front-row seat to set the green agenda, standards and rules, and get others to follow. There’s a catch though. It’s also determined to catch up and overtake the United States, while driven to keep creating tens of millions of jobs at home at a time when the labour market is suffering from several structural weaknesses,” he said.

“These two ‘determineds’ are in conflict as far as China’s contemporary growth and development are concerned. It could yet choose to pursue the latter. The fundamental problem is that China’s development model has the world’s largest concentration of carbon-intensive industries and sectors, and has high energy intensity features.”

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