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Beijing’s coal addiction key to climate summit

China is a land of epic contradictions.

It is home to the world’s largest solar farm, a rolling ocean 4 million panels high in the Tibetan Plateau that’s large enough to cover Manhattan. Some 600 miles east, in Inner Mongolia, lie the belching chimneys of the Tuoketuo Power Plant, the world’s largest coal-fired power station and one of the greatest sources of pollution ever created.

At the start of COP26 on Sunday, the world might know which of China’s two extremes will dominate the decades to come – and potentially shape the world’s future.

Over the next two weeks, the United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Glasgow, Scotland. And most eyes will be on the team sent from Beijing.

China is the world’s biggest polluter, emitting more greenhouse gases than all other industrialized countries combined.

Many countries, including the United States, are still not doing enough to avoid damaging temperature rises this century, according to most experts, which United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday was a “thunder of alarm” before the COP26.

But China is under increasing pressure, not only because it is responsible for more than a quarter of global emissions, but because its promises to reduce them have so far been less ambitious than those of the United States. Europe and others.

“My appeal to China is very simple,” Guterres said at a press conference, “that they will reach net zero by 2060 and peak in emissions by 2030”.

Some experts also fear that the current global energy crisis – which has left millions of people in China subject to power cuts and rationing that could last for months – may mean Beijing is stepping back even further on plans to wean off fuels. fossils.

The stakes could not be higher. No matter what the United States and Europe do, the world cannot avoid damaging temperature rises “without China meeting its climate goals,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We cannot afford for China to fail.”

The Tuoketuo Power Plant in Inner Mongolia is the world’s largest coal-fired power plant in terms of production.Natalie Behring / Bloomberg via Getty Images File

Even in the midst of Covid-19, COP26 will be vast: 25,000 delegates, dozens of world leaders and appearances by Pope Francis and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. For many, this is the best way to alleviate an environmental calamity that has already been unleashed.

The goal is to flesh out the legally binding targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, keeping the global temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees Celsius this century, preferably 1.5 degrees.

China has released some details of its environmental plans in recent days, and the world is awaiting its official notice updated list of pledges before COP26. But the likely absence of President Xi Jinping, who has not left China since the start of the pandemic, is seen as a bad omen for hopes of a breakthrough. To date, China’s plans have been “grossly insufficient” to meet even the 2-degree target, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a leading non-profit database in Germany.

Instead, he says, Beijing’s policies are compatible with a 3-degree world, which means rising sea levels, more extreme weather conditions and possible mass starvation as swathes of the planet become inhospitable to cultures and even to human life itself.

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China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment did not respond to requests for comment on the assessment that its policies are compatible with 3 degrees of warming.

Beijing says it is “fully compliant” with the Paris Agreement, but still defines itself as a “developing country” which is still undergoing urbanization and industrialization, a Commission official said this week China’s national development and reform agenda. “So the energy consumption will continue to increase. “

It is fitting for this land of juxtaposition that China has both accomplished a lot on climate change while not promising enough for the future. Gone are the days when China rejected international calls to curb the emissions spiral, with its delegates destroying previous climate summits by insisting rich countries shoulder the blame.

Now he wants to be seen as the central player.

Last year, Xi announced that China would peak in emissions in 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. And last month, he pledged the country would stop funding coal projects in the foreigner. Beijing used to finance more than 70% of coal-fired power plants under construction or planning around the world, according to the Beijing-based International Green Finance Institute.

On renewables, Xi’s China added more wind power last year than all other countries combined. Its solar, hydropower and electric vehicle sectors eclipse all others, with its 4.5 million electric cars accounting for almost half of the global total.

But stopping coal will be brutal for a country 60% fueled by black stuff. An estimate from Tsinghua University in Beijing said its goal of net zero would cost an incomprehensible amount of $ 46 trillion.

Over the past 40 years, coal has fueled China’s rapid urbanization, keeping the lights on for 1.4 billion people and fueling the cement and steel industries that are forging its infrastructure-based economy.

Without coal, China would not have lifted 800 million people out of poverty. And its attempts to shed the habit are already causing complaints that will be familiar to any country that has attempted to phase out seemingly essential dirty industries.

“The mines are all closed in my area – there are no more,” Zhou Duofu said, saying he ran mines employing 500 people in Hunan province. “My area was so prosperous,” he added, but government policy meant “we had to stop”.

Gonghe Solar Park in Qinghai Province of China is the largest in the world.Zhang Hongxiang / Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

China is not taking action on climate change to please the West. The Communist Party views climate change as an existential threat – both to the country and the party’s control over it, said Judith Shapiro, a Chinese climate expert who teaches at the American University in Washington.

This year, it suffered deadly flooding in Henan province, and 2020 was the hottest year on record in Asia, the United Nations said this week. Rising sea levels endanger low-lying megalopolises like Shanghai and its 25 million inhabitants.

The Communist Party “is full of scientists and engineers,” Shapiro said, “and they are very much aware” that this is a “long-term risk to national security.” Now the party “must ask itself if this is a new threat to its legitimacy,” she said.

In the short term, China might have another problem.

He was hit harder than anyone by the global energy crisis, collapsing under a coal shortage and increased demand for manufacturing. For weeks, blackouts hit millions of homes and businesses in 20 provinces.

The fallout from the crisis is a major concern ahead of COP26. Experts fear that the realpolitik of keeping the lights on means that Beijing is less likely than ever to quit coal on time. Indeed, Beijing ordered all coal mines to operate at full capacity before winter.

“This year, we should have started to see significant reductions in fossil fuel emissions,” said Ma Jun, director of the think tank at the China Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, who says every country will face these pressures. . “But unfortunately we’re probably going to see a rebound.”

Next, Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Xi in Beijing in 2015.Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters file

Beijing advocates say that while the United States can boast more ambitious climate promises, its governments are more focused on the short term and less likely to succeed than the dynastic vision defined by the technocratic Chinese one-party state.

And although China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, it doesn’t even make the top 40 when those emissions are broken down by person. The worst major countries in terms of per capita pollution are Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada and the United States

Many international experts argue that there is also an inherent injustice in calculations of global emissions, which are based on what countries produce rather than what they consume. Put simply, the United States and others outsource much of their cheap and dirty manufacturing to China, allowing Americans to buy iPhones and Nike sneakers without taking responsibility for the carbon emissions they have. they create.

“China has essentially become the custodian of global pollution when it has grown economically,” said Shapiro of the American University. “Much of the pollution from the developed world has been shifted to China. “

China is also far from alone in needing to do more.

The United States, the European Union and Japan have slightly more ambitious policies than Beijing, according to the Climate Action Tracker, but these are still “insufficient” to meet the 1.5 degree target. Nigeria and the United Kingdom are among the countries considered to be “almost sufficient”. The Gambia is the only “sufficient” country.

On this scale, China is de facto on a nasty walk with Russia, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Canada – even after adjusting for their “fair share”, based on historical emissions and their ability to to act.

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special climate envoy, lobbied Beijing to be one of the few powers not to adopt the 2050 COP26 net zero target. “We can’t go. where we need to go if China doesn’t join this effort, ”he told MSNBC’s“ Morning Joe ”last month.

But forget about 2050, the only way to avoid a crisis is for China to start acting almost immediately, cutting emissions by 2025 rather than 2030, according to Shuo Li, senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia based in Beijing.

“It will create a lot of global momentum and earn China the global respect it desires,” he said. “We have to embrace hard work now. “

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