In mid-October the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted ambitious new economic goals for the next fifteen years. Among these are achieving “technological self-sufficiency” and becoming a “middle income country.” By most standards this implies a target of at least doubling and even tripling per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2035. The CCP also reiterated its announced goals under the Paris climate accord to reach “peak CO2 emissions” by 2020 while reducing the overall “energy intensity” of its economy. In September President Xi had set a goal of China attaining “carbon neutrality” by 2060. Its ability and willingness to meet these goals is questionable.
Chinese diplomacy over the years has skillfully shaped its reputation as a responsible stakeholder in the world economy and in the global campaign to combat climate change. It has become increasingly clear, however, in recent years, as Chinese industry and technology have displaced that of other industrial countries using a combination of keeping its own vast market largely closed, subsidizing its key industries, and employing below-market financing to support both production and exports, that it cannot be counted on to comply with its commitments to the agreements comprising the rules-based World Trade Organization (WTO) and other pacts.
Some historical perspective on Chinese behavior and the most recent CCP plan for 2035 suggests that relying on CCP commitments on the climate too is questionable. In the first place, the unprecedented growth of its economy has resulted in enormous increases in its carbon footprint. In 2000 China already accounted for 13.6 percent of global CO2 emissions, but by 2017 its share had reached 27 percent. Total carbon emissions by China expanded slightly in 2018 and 2019, reaching a total figure of about 10 billion metric tons (BT) per year. In comparison, the United States, which is the world’s leader in total volume reduction of carbon emissions since 2000, emitted around 5.5 BT, representing around 14 percent of world totals.
The United States has made progress on its carbon footprint in large part by shifting electricity production from coal to natural gas, with growing contributions from renewables. In contrast, China is the world leader in building new coal-fired generation plants and is on track to grant more permits for new coal facilities in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. In 2019 coal represented some 64 percent of total energy use, while renewables contributed 8 percent and hydro 17 percent for the Chinese grid. China is by far the world’s largest emitter of methane gas, a much more potent contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide, with levels released into the atmosphere reaching three to four times that of the United States, and three times more than Russia. Chinese agricultural methods are responsible for much of its total, whereas the United States and Russia see large contributions from natural gas production.
As many industrial economies slowly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, China is committed only to reach peak levels by 2020 while also reducing the energy intensity of its economy. To be accurate, China has made progress on this latter indicator, cutting its average count of emissions per dollar of GDP by around 40 percent between 2006 and 2019. Nonetheless its energy intensity remains double that of the United States, whose levels are among the highest among industrial economies, in part due to its huge oil and gas sector.
It is important to consider the impact of the CCP’s new goals for growth by 2035 on its Paris commitments. As noted earlier, the CCP targets per capita GDP growth of two to three times current levels in the next 15 years, and this growth will obviously have a major impact on reaching its environmental goals. Since the world’s most skilled demographer, Nicholas Eberstadt, estimates that China’s population growth will continue to moderate and then decline in coming decade, he projects little change in the current level of 1.4 billion by 2035. He also estimates that it will decline by about 4 million per year after that. Thus any possibility of the Middle Kingdom meeting is own targets on carbon emissions depends on further reductions the intensity of energy use in the future. As noted earlier, this will be difficult to achieve because of the still rapid growth of coal-fired electricity, plus the plan to become self-sufficient in sectors like metals, cement and general manufacturing, all of which are major consumers of energy. And these figures do not take into account China’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which include methane, nitrous oxide and other important contributors to climate change. China tripled its output of these sources (when converted to CO2 equivalent) between 2000 and 2016, while the United States was reducing these emissions by 22 percent.
A few rough calculations on the future path of China’s CO2 footprint are revealing. If it is able to triple its per capital GDP while not materially improving its energy intensity, its total CO2 emissions for 2035 would be approximately 38 BT annually, about seven times current U.S. levels, which are expected to slowly decline. A more optimistic scenario in which China continues to improve its energy intensity at previous rates, thereby reducing that indicator by another 40 percent would still increase emission levels to 22 BT, double its current level. Only if energy intensity is improved by the same proportion and growth is limited to doubling GDP per capita can it reach the lower target of 14.7 BT estimated for 2030 by the Climate Action Tracker organization, which promotes reaching the Paris climate accord goal. According to this group’s analysis, even this level is rated as “highly insufficient,” with an explanation that it falls “outside of a country’s ‘fair share’ range and (is) not at all consistent with holding warming below two degrees Celsius, let alone with the Paris Agreements stronger 1.5 degree limit.” This group also notes that the Middle Kingdom, largely through its mercantilist Belt and Road Initiative, is the largest exporter of coal-fired electricity plants being developed outside of China.
Given China’s failure to honor its commitments to the WTO, respect democracy in Hong Kong, and share with the world important information regarding the Covid-19 outbreak, its willingness to meet its Paris targets can at best be judged questionable. Even under the most optimistic scenario outlined above, China’s peak emissions will be at least three times that of the United States, which is frequently criticized as a pariah in global climate debates by supporters of the Paris accord. Among other statements, Presidential candidate Joe Biden has vowed to work more closely with China to combat climate change and has compared their record favorably to that of the United States. If he eventually prevails in the election, he would be well advised to remain vigilant about the CCP’s fidelity to long-standing commitments.