The temptation to paint China as the villain remains irresistible, even where we are talking of Cooperation.
So it was last week as US President Joe Biden called world leaders together on Earth Day to galvanise cooperation on global warming and prepare for the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in November.
As many would have it, the US and Europe are poised to lead the world away from the brink of the climate crisis with ambitious plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
Meanwhile, there is an urgent need to crack the whip over laggards in particular China, which is by far the world’s largest emitter and is still building new coal-fired power plants, both at home and as part of the Belt & Road Initiative.
Commentators complained that President Xi Jinping brought nothing new to the table after last September’s commitment that China would achieve net carbon neutrality by 2060.
They were sceptical about Beijing’s promises to reduce coal-fired power, which still accounts for most of the country’s power generation and is a main reason China remains the world’s biggest emitter.
In certain respects, targeting China is reasonable and perhaps inevitable. Its sheer size as a producer and consumer of energy makes it impossible to imagine any solution to the climate crisis without China playing a pivotal role. So, too, because of the extent to which it relies on coal-fired power.
However, this creates a conundrum at the heart of the climate challenge. Any effective solution must ultimately be down to how China performs, but leading economies such as the US and Europe are keen to grab the credit for progress on reducing carbon emissions.
As global carbon dioxide emissions have risen from 30,582 million tonnes in 2010 to 33,513 million tonnes in 2018, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says China accounted for more than half of the increase. With 11 gigawatts of coal-fired power added in the first half of 2020 and 53GW in the pipeline, China accounted for around 90 per cent of the world’s total new coal-fired power last year.
China is by far the world’s largest consumer of electricity. The IEA says it consumed 6,800 terawatt hours in 2018, compared with 4,300TWh in the US and 1,000TWh in Japan, and consumption will almost inevitably continue to rise. As a developing country, China still consumes less power on a per capita basis than most developed Western economies.
The IEA says China consumed 4.9 megawatt-hours of power per capita last year. That is almost five times more per capita than in 2000, compared with 12.8 MWh per capita in the US and 6 MWh per capita in the EU.
It is therefore easy to blame China for rising carbon emissions and rising global temperatures, but this overlooks the contributions it is making to arrest the climate crisis. Of the 260GW of new renewable power added worldwide last year, China accounted for 136GW, more than the total renewable power added in Europe in the past five years.
In adding 71GW of wind power, China took its total installed capacity of wind power to 281GW. China also added 50GW of solar power last year, taking its installed total to 253GW. By comparison, European Union countries added 14.7GW and the US 14.2GW.
Beyond this, China is leading the world in developing batteries that can store and therefore stabilise the supply of intermittent solar and wind power. It is pioneering the development of ultra-high-capacity power lines that can stabilise power supplies across vast distances.
China has been building these ultra-high-capacity lines that can be up to 3,000km long since 2009. It is exploring a massive regional power grid that could radically reduce the cost of wind and solar power across a region that would span from Russia and Mongolia in the west to Japan and Korea in the east.
China’s high-speed rail system now covers almost 38,000km. That compares with 3,400km of high-speed railway in Spain, 2,800km in France and none in the US, making long-distance travel more fuel-efficient than road or air transport.
Another significant emissions-saving effort has been plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles cars, taxis, buses and commercial vehicles. According to the IEA, China accounts for 3.35 million electric vehicles on the road today almost half the 7.2 million in the world, compared with 1.8 million in Europe and 1.3 million in the US.
Whatever critics say about the lack of specifics in China’s current zero-carbon targets, this array of innovations will contribute massively to improved energy efficiency and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
Whatever credit China might deserve for these various efforts, there are still good grounds for scepticism and areas where important progress still needs to be made. Within China, there are powerful lobbies in support of coal, concentrated among some state-owned enterprises and in key coal-mining provinces such as Shanxi.
China is also one of the world’s largest subsidies of fossil fuels. Removing these subsidies perhaps shifting them to support the development of more renewables would contribute massively to a shift to clean-energy development in power generation as well as transport and in the emissions linked with heating and cooling homes.
In sum, we should congratulate Biden for rejoining the global effort to limit global warming. Last week’s meetings provided a rare opportunity for China & the US to work cooperatively together and will contribute positively to preparations for COP26. Amid all the political posturing, the US and Europe should remember there is no solution to our climate crisis without China at its heart.