While it was President Hu Jintao that first used the phrase “ecological civilization” in 2007 to describe China’s own brand of environmentalism, it is Xi that has made it part of the Party’s lexicon and a key pillar for the country’s development.
In doing so, Xi has deliberately sought to differentiate China’s approach from traditional Western notions of liberal environmentalism. This includes by underscoring the economic importance of environmental action, as evidenced by his regular pronouncement that “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver,” a phrase Xi first used in 2005 when he was Party Secretary in Zhejiang province.
Until now, domestic imperatives have been driving China’s creeping environmentalism. The single greatest inspiration for the change in behavior between the China the world grappled with at the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and the China that was instrumental in the securing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, was rising concerns amongst the Chinese population on the level of air pollution in their cities. Declaring a “war on pollution” during the opening of the 18th National Party Congress in March 2014 underscored this.
However, that same year, Xi’s rhetoric also started to emphasize the international imperatives of climate action. This included his declaration that “addressing climate change and implementation of sustainable development is not what we are asked to do, but what we really want to do and we will do well”. Nevertheless, China remained cautious, as demonstrated by Xi’s decision not to attend a climate summit convened by former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2014, which was billed as the most important moment in the lead-up to Paris.
Nevertheless, in 2015 and 2016, Xi embarked on an intensive environmental reform effort within the Party, including through embedding the concept of ecological civilization in the 13th Five Year Plan and pitting it alongside the concepts of “The Chinese Dream” and “The Two Centenary Goals”, including to double China’s GDP by 2020. China’s vision of ecological civilization was also a central concept in the 2015 NDC it tabled as its first commitment under the Paris Agreement.
This helps demonstrate why, by January 2017, just days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump who was elected on a platform of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, Xi was prepared to use an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to signal China would nevertheless stay the course with the Agreement. The significance of Xi’s statement at the time should not be underestimated. If China had chosen to use Trump’s formal confirmation in June of that year of his intention to withdraw from the Agreement as an opportunity to obfuscate on its obligations – or worse to also seek to withdraw from the Agreement altogether – it is unlikely that the Agreement would remain intact today. For that, the world owes China a debt of gratitude.
At the same time, China must be prepared to do much more to reduce emissions in the short-term, including through depositing a new NDC next year in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. While President-elect Biden will begin the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, the United States is unlikely to be able to produce a 2030 NDC before the northern summer. And once it has, this is likely to represent a significant first restorative step, potentially by elevating the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025 (on 2005 levels) to somewhere between a 38 and 54 percent cut in emissions by 2030.
China would therefore do well to heed that timeline and not seek to simply make piecemeal advancements to its own NDC before the end of 2020. While the literalists in China’s diplomatic corps will be conscious of the Paris Agreement’s original deadline of 2020 for the updating of NDCs (prior to the impact of Covid-19 and the delaying of COP26), the reality is the international community will judge the country more harshly for hastily delivering an insufficient NDC. And what is already clear is that Xi’s other announcement in September that China will now aim to peak emissions “before” – as opposed to “around” – 2030 will simply not cut it in the eyes of the international community who will belooking for China to reach this milestone by 2025, while also taking action to address the other three quantitative targets contained in its existing NDC.
Notwithstanding the flexibility provided by the likely timing of the Biden administration’s own NDC, it is also in China’s own interests to wait to table a new 2030 NDC until the main elements of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) have been finalized in the first quarter of next year. By all accounts, this is likely to see improvements to China’s carbon intensity and energy efficiency measures, as well as with regards to the domestic use of coal.
But in order to be credible, China must use the Five-Year Plan process, including the production of a “Special Plan for Combating Climate Change and the CO2 Peaking Action Plan”, as well as the “Plan for Energy Development and the Plan for Electricity Development” – to commit to a cap of 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, and to control non-carbon dioxide emissions at two billion tons. This would require China to also commit to limiting total coal power capacity to no more than 1,150 gigawatts in 2025 and work towards a complete phase-out of all domestic coal generation by 2040. This would mean China would also cross the symbolically important threshold of reducing the share of coal in total energy consumption to below 50 percent before the end of 2025.
The Five Year Plan also allows China to ground the NDC in a government-wide process, rather than simply an effort contained to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). In other words, waiting for the Five Year Plan would provide for a stronger NDC and one with more domestic buy-in to deliver it. It would also mean the NDC can help reinforce, rather than be seen to detract from, Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality.
However, much of this will rest even more immediately on the decisions China continues to take as part of its economic response to Covid-19. The approval of large number of new coal-fired power plants this year does not augur well for ensuring there is a green economic recovery, even with Beijing’s investment in so called “new infrastructure” such as electric vehicle charging stations and rail upgrades. Indeed, the total capacity of coal-fired power generation now under development in China is larger than the remaining operating fleet in the United States.
To read the original report from the Asia Society Policy Institute, please click here