China’s role in accelerating the global green transition

China could play a critical role in a quicker, cleaner and cheaper pathway to decarbonizing the global energy system.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 23 April 2021 2 minute READ

Sea level rise, changes in precipitation, more frequent extreme weather-related events and the increasing spread of infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, threaten the availability of food, water and healthcare for people around the world. But action needs to be taken not just internationally, but nationally, if the world is to avoid the most dangerous consequences of the climate crisis.

China and the world

China is key to ensuring a stable climate. It is one of the countries most sensitive to the impacts of climate change, with a higher warming rate than the global average, but it is also the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, the Chinese government has recognized climate change as a key non-traditional security threat to the country’s sustainable development and, on 22 September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the country aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, receiving applause from the international community.

The recently adopted 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) (2020-25), though falling short of international calls to introduce a cap on total carbon emissions over the next five years and a lower than expected carbon intensity target of 18 per cent, has put forward an action plan for peaking CO2 emissions by 2030 while confirming the country’s net-zero 2060 target – with more robust policies expected to be on the way.

The plan also explicitly mentions the control of non-CO2 greenhouse gases for the first time, such as methane, indicating that China is looking to take all greenhouse gases into account.

Xi Jinping signaled China’s commitment in his speech at the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by US President Joe Biden on Earth Day.

If China is able to accelerate its decarbonization over the first five years towards its 2060 target, it will not only provide a clearer indication of when China’s CO2 emissions will peak by 2030, but it will also show whether the peak could reach a lower value, which is critical for China to achieve its net-zero target.

Importantly, Xi Jinping signaled China’s commitment again this week in his speech at the Leaders Summit on Climate, hosted by US President Joe Biden on Earth Day, stating Chinese coal consumption and coal-fired power projects will be strictly controlled over the next five years and phased down as part of the country’s 15th Five-Year Plan post-2025.

The decisive green transition

Following the disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, not only to economic development but also to energy consumption and carbon emissions, China and the rest of the world, cannot afford to continue with a business-as-usual approach: it’s too risky and too expensive. Instead, a decisive green transition is an approach that is both practical and also mutually beneficial for countries around the world.

Based on a rigorous analysis of the historical trends of the costs of energy technologies, Oxford University, as part of a project led by Chatham House, has devised a new, simple and transparent model which finds that a decisive green transition – in which current growth rates for renewables continue over the next decade – can bring the world almost entirely in line with the ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to well below 2 °C.

Crucially, the decisive green transition does not require a reduction in economic growth nor does it rely on large investments in unproven controversial technologies – and it is likely to be much less expensive than continuing with the current fossil-fuels based system.

China’s ability to meet its climate targets, particularly under the 14th Five-Year Plan, will rest not only on its domestic efforts but also on tighter international cooperation.

This new perspective suggests renewable energy, like solar and wind, can provide a cost-effective steady and secure energy supply, offering China and the world a different opportunity to rethink how to transition to a Paris-compliant world.

But the international community needs to join forces to accelerate the deployment of renewables and China could play a critical role in doing this. China is the world’s most populous nation, has the second largest economy and is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, and as such, is fundamental to the success of any global agreements to tackle climate change.

The recently signed China-US Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis is a significant step in the right direction in fostering multilateral cooperation by declaring that concrete action at the Conference of Parties (COP 26) this year is needed in order to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement specifically cooperation on technology development, a just transition away from coal, climate-related capacity-building and ambitious targets including on finance.

Of course the best way to doing this will be a transition that offers a quicker, cleaner and cheaper route to decarbonization while enabling all countries – including China – to capture more of the prosperity that the green revolution can offer.

China’s ability to meet its climate targets, particularly under the 14th Five-Year Plan, will rest not only on its domestic efforts but also on tighter international cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and its potential resurgence, as well as on avoiding trade wars in the post-pandemic recovery landscape.