China and COP21
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

China and COP21

Mar. 21, 2016  |     |  0 comments

On December 12, 2015, 196 nations at COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, unanimously committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming to a maximum increase of 1.5ºC, or failing that, less than 2ºC. The Paris Agreement, which was the product of two decades of contested negotiations, requires the signatory countries to reduce their carbon emissions to zero. While this will require the world to move from its current heavy use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels to low-carbon renewable energy sources, new technologies for carbon capture and storage (CCS) as well as older solutions like reforestation will need to be deployed on a global scale. International carbon trading markets will also have to be established to effectively manage this green transition (Davenport, 2015; McMahon, 2015).

In his address at the COP21 opening ceremony, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted a pledge made in June that China will reduce its carbon emissions by 60-65 percent of its 2005 levels by 2030, and that by 2030 it will also increase its use of low-carbon renewable energy to 20 percent of its overall energy consumption. Indeed, China has emphasized the development of low-carbon and low-polluting industries in its 2016-2020 Five Year Plan. Other climate-friendly policies that the Chinese government will be pursuing include the development of a low-carbon transportation network as well as a previously-announced plan to establish a national emissions trading system by 2017 (Lim, 2015d; “China has confidence,” 2015). President Xi also called on developed nations to honor their commitment made at the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen for technology transfer as well as US$100 billion in annual financing to the developing world for their climate change mitigation efforts (“Xi urges,” 2015). This financing commitment was included in the final Paris Agreement, but in a non-legally binding section of the text (Davenport, 2015).

Reiterating the theme he raised earlier this year of the need for the world to switch from the zero-sum game mentality to the cooperative win-win mode of international relations, President Xi emphasized that China will pursue international cooperation, especially with its partners in the developing world, on the issue of climate change. Climate change mitigation projects that China will undertake with its partners in the Global South include low-carbon industrialization, sustainable urban development, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, disaster planning, climate change mitigation training, and climate change financing (Lim, 2015a; “China to continue,” 2015). President Xi also called on the developed nations to help the developing world not just to achieve success in their climate change mitigation efforts but also to achieve the fruits of economic development (“No mentality,” 2015). As Jin Liqun, the president-designate of China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), recently argued, while Western-backed international financial institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) would reject financing for high-carbon emitting coal-fired power plants, the AIIB might offer such financing if the communities involved would otherwise be deprived of the developmental benefits of electrical power: “Do you leave these people in the dark? It’s a human rights issue” (quoted in Perlez, 2015).

The Low-Carbon New Normal

The Chinese government and the ADB have announced their cooperation on the development and deployment of CCS technology to facilitate China’s planned reduction of carbon emissions. Both parties have established a roadmap from 2015 up till 2050 to research and deploy CCS technology in cities, industry, and the energy sector, especially high-carbon emitting coal-fired power plants. The Chinese government and the ADB also plan cooperation on financing and technology transfer for additional climate change mitigation projects (“China, ADB,” 2015). Indeed, China’s efforts to fit climate change mitigation into its long-term development plans have been applauded by the World Bank as a good example for other nations to follow (“World Bank hails,” 2015). At the local level, 6 Chinese provinces and 36 cities have been developing their own low-carbon roadmaps since 2010 (“Chinese cities share,” 2015). Wuhan and Nanjing won C40 Cities Awards during the Paris Conference for their respective projects: Wuhan’s transformation of its Jinkou landfill into an ecological park, and Nanjing’s successful deployment of a clean-energy transportation network that reduced carbon emissions by over 400,000 tons (“Two Chinese cities,” 2015).

Xi Jinping highlighted a pledge made in June that China will reduce its carbon emissions by 60-65 percent of its 2005 levels by 2030.

Recent air pollution crises in China have highlighted the need to accelerate such efforts. In November Shenyang suffered smog that contained dangerous levels of air pollution ― up to 50 times what the World Health Organization considers safe. The following month Beijing had to issue its first ever air pollution red alert after suffering significant levels of toxic smog (Koh, 2015; Wong, 2015). Air pollution crises like these have helped raise consumer interest in electric vehicles, especially since these non-polluting vehicles, unlike conventional vehicles, are permitted to be used during periods of severe smog. Government subsidies and tax incentives for electric vehicles have helped boost consumer demand by almost 290 percent from a year ago, transforming China into the world’s largest market for electric cars, with 250,000 vehicles expected to be sold in China this year, compared with 180,000 in the US (Minter, 2015; “China to become world’s,” 2015).

However, such non-polluting vehicles cannot be the sole solution to the problems of carbon emissions or air pollution, so long as the electricity they run on is primarily generated from carbon-emitting and air polluting coal-fired power plants (Spring, 2015). To reduce such pollution, the Chinese government will use its regulatory muscle to pursue the closure of substandard mines responsible for the low-quality coal that has generated much of China’s air pollution (“China to accelerate,” 2015). However, the government recognizes that the ideal long-term solution is to increase the use of low-carbon and non-polluting renewable energy sources. By 2020, China seeks to increase its electrical supply from solar power to 200 gigawatts, and its electrical supply from wind power to 250 gigawatts (Reed, 2015). Indeed, in 2014 China topped the developing world with its massive US$89 billion investment in renewable energy. This investment added 35 gigawatts of renewable energy to China’s electrical grid, which, as Bloomberg notes, is “more than the U.S., U.K., and France combined” (Randall, 2015; “China Again,” 2015; “China tops,” 2015).

Not All Green Energy Is Green

Hydropower is a controversial source of renewable energy in China. China currently accounts for almost half the world’s dams, and Chinese hydropower dams generated 300 gigawatts of electricity in 2014. The government plans to increase this to 350 gigawatts by 2020. While the operation of hydropower dams directly generates substantially less carbon emissions than coal-fired power plants, the decomposition of plant and vegetable matter in the water reservoirs of these dams is a key source of greenhouse gases like methane. The construction of hydropower dams tends to also be paired with the construction of coal-fired power plants, as seasonal decreases in water flow necessitates supplementary modes of power generation for the local communities. Ideally hydropower would be paired with other renewable sources of energy like solar or wind, but in practice the expansion of the network of hydropower dams in China has been accompanied with an expansion of the network of coal-fired power plants. Apart from the problem of carbon emissions, the water reservoirs of hydropower dams also concentrate pollutants and waste from upstream industrial and other human activities that would otherwise have been flushed downstream, thereby exacerbating water pollution. The damage from hydropower dams to riverine ecosystems from pollution, silting, and the disruption of natural water flows can be substantial. Indeed, hydropower development along the Upper Mekong in China and Laos has raised concerns in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam of the threat to their riverine fisheries (Lewis, 2013; Lim, 2015c; Walker & Liu, 2015; Welcomme, Baird, Dudgeon, Halls, Lamberts, & Mustafa, 2016, pp. 370-371; “Report: China,” 2015).

More controversially, China will be accelerating its construction of nuclear power plants. Nuclear power generated 1.5 percent of China’s electrical supply in 2014; the Chinese government plans to increase this to 10 percent in 2030. China’s 2016-2020 Five Year Plan hence provides for the annual construction of 6-8 new nuclear power plants, with the goal of nuclear power generating 88 gigawatts of electricity by 2020. China currently has 30 nuclear power plants in operation; industry experts expect this number to increase to 110 by 2030. Indeed, the Chinese nuclear power industry has already gone global with projects in the UK and Argentina, and there are ambitious plans for the further export of Chinese nuclear technology through international cooperation under the frameworks of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (Lyu, 2015; Stapczynski, Urabe, & Guo, 2015; Zhao, 2015; “China Aims,” 2015; “China to become global,” 2015). While nuclear power does not directly generate greenhouse gases, it does generate substantial radioactive waste which requires complex mechanisms for its safe disposal. Also, nuclear power carries the serious risk of radioactive contamination of the surrounding environment, as the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster recently demonstrated.


This paper was originally published in Eurasia Review (Lim, 2015b). Since that time of writing, the Obama administration has attempted to establish strict Environmental Protection Agency regulations on gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, there has been significant political pushback against these regulations, and in February 2016, the US Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the implementation on these rules until the legal challenges to these are decided. Experts warn that should these regulations eventually be decided as illegal, this would prompt other global emitters of greenhouse gases, including China and India, to reconsider their COP21 commitments to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions (Davenport, 2016). China, however, has its own domestic pressures to cut such emissions. Several major metropolitan areas like Shanghai banned the traditional lighting of fireworks during the recent Lunar New Year celebrations in an attempt to reduce air pollution, though this was not sufficient to clear the persistent smog. Ongoing attempts to close polluting factories have created separate problems like job losses, while the government’s promotion of electric and hybrid vehicles may ironically exacerbate the smog problem since, as noted earlier, the electricity used to power these non-polluting vehicles is mostly generated by polluting power plants (Carney, 2016; Spring, 2016; “Chinese Cities Ban,” 2016; “Smog forecast,” 2016).


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