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Issue #08 Decarbonisaing China: 100+ Big Questions Asked
Collective insights on the present and the future of China's decarb journey
It’s been three years since China’s President Xi Jinping made the “Shuang Tan” pledge (carbon peaking before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060) in the UN General Assembly.
Countless studies and op-eds were produced, and numerous panel discussions have been hosted since. But do we have all the necessary information and, more importantly, evidence to base our judgements on the world’s largest carbon emitter’s decarbonisation? Have we even been asking the right questions?
This summer, I invited a few dozen leading experts working on the intersection of China and climate change to join me on a thought experiment. Together, we look for out-of-the-box thinking that transcends short-term news cycles and our usual research, campaigning, and reporting routines about China and its decarbonisation.
In the first article of the three-part series, you will read about over a hundred questions posed by the leading China climate experts, including but not limited to:
Climate politics in China
Transparency and accountability
Peaking coal and carbon emissions
Winners & losers in China’s decarbonisation
“Global China” confronted with geopolitical turmoil
Climate governance innovation
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Top of the list are questions about the politics of climate change in China. Ever since the new climate commitment, every “China climate watcher” has been asking themselves the same questions:
LEADERSHIP WILL. How much of China's climate commitment can be attributed to Xi's personal will? Should we worry about political fractions? Will the current leadership’s strong political will to tackle climate change stand in the next three decades?
POLITICAL CALCULUS. How does China view its own role in the environment and the climate crisis? Given that this personal aspect is undeniably crucial, what is Xi’s precise calculus? What are China's internally defined decarbonisation priorities and models for constructive multilateral support, rather than prescriptive external forces, to enable urgently needed emissions reductions?
CLIMATE MINISTRY. The Leaders Group on Carbon Peaking and Neutrality at the State Council level demonstrates the top leadership’s intention to coordinate the vertical and horizontal governance bodies, but such an ad hoc group, despite high-level political endorsement, does not address the fundamental governing obstacles, particularly scattered execution capacity and siloed policymaking. Will China set up a more powerful government body at the ministerial level?
But cracking the codes of the Chinese political language and comprehending the political landscape is not easy, even for experts in the field:
POLITICAL JARGON. New Development Philothopy, Ecological Civilisation, China’s Comprehensive View on Security... What do these terms actually mean? To what extent has such governing philanthropy been implemented—or not?
THE ‘OTHER’ DRIVERS. What are the other domestic drivers for a deep and sustained low-carbon transition? Does civil society still have a place in the game? Is there any room for collective action from non-government actors?
As we enter the second half of the 14th five-year plan, questions about how the 2020 climate pledge is actually being implemented on the ground naturally arise:
NEW ENERGY SYSTEM. China has recently released its plans for the New Energy System. How will it deliver it? Is it actually possible to build a reliable energy system dominated by renewables for a large country like China? Can this New Energy System meet the demands of an increasingly electrified economy? When can China's renewables generate more electricity than coal-fired power plants?
UNLOCK INVESTMENT. What are the primary obstacles to clean energy investment in China? To what extent can state intervention clear the obstacles? Can China sustain its clean energy investment as the investment-driven economic model comes to a head? How will the West-East division impact China’s clean energy development, particularly renewable energy and green hydrogen?
DRIVERS FOR THE CLEAN. What mix of internal economic, political, and social motivators and international cooperative frameworks could rapidly drive the adoption of renewables and phase out fossil fuels? What are the non-economic barriers to deep market reform and scaling up market-based policies, such as the carbon and power markets? Are green technology development and the dominance of global clean energy markets compelling domestic factors? Can climate disasters and public health provide pull?
COWS AND CROPS. How will agriculture and soil play a role in China’s mitigation plan? Will China’s agriculture sector ever become a carbon sink? Does China have plans to synergise its efforts on GHG emission reduction and nature conservation in the food system?
Earlier, many research institutions anticipated that China would peak carbon emissions “before 2025” or “before 2027”. However, the ongoing economic downturn and the possible stimulus measures introduce new uncertainties to China's carbon peaking timeline:
CARBON PEAKING. To what extent can China's carbon peaking be attributed to structural reform in the economic sectors since the Copenhagen Conference, and how much is it merely an extended side effect of the economic downturns?
PEAKING COAL. Can China peak its coal consumption around 2025? Will consumption rapidly decrease afterwards or rather stay high on the plateau? How will China manage stranded assets in the coal sector? Why do policymakers believe they need more coal for grid stability, and what could change their minds? Would China ever be willing to adopt a regional instead of provincial dispatch, and to what extent would that reduce the perceived need for more "baseload" power? Will the coal industry in China mount a more systemic counterattack against clean energy and/or CO2-peaking targets?
The answer to the above question leads to more questions about China’s development model. The immediate economic challenges raise concerns about reverting to old growth-driven approaches at the expense of the environment:
NEW ECONOMIC NORMS. Decarbonising China's economy requires a systemic transformation from the carbon-intensive nexus of construction and investment that it has relied upon since the late 2000s. How can China find a new growth model to break from this pattern? What will China's new economic paradigm look like once it recovers from the current downturn? As economists suggest China is leaning from an investment-led economic model to a consumption-led one, is there a place for consumption reduction, or “degrowth”, in China's decarbonisation?
DEVELOPMENT MODEL. What limits does climate change pose to China's own development? Does it have to resort to a non-capitalist development model, and what will be the social and political implications? Or does it compel China to follow other countries' capitalist models and outsource carbon to countries at the lower end of the global value chain?
MAKING THE CASE FOR GREEN. How we foster sustainable growth with the transition to net zero as the driving force? Is there really an economic case for the net zero transition in an increasingly inward-looking world dictated by news and election cycles, manipulated by powerful vested interests (commercially and socially), and mired in geopolitical rivalry?
Now that rejuvenating declining economic performance has become the top priority, where does climate action now sit on the agenda?
PEAKED MOMENTUM? Climate action at the provincial and municipal levels appears to be further sidelined, particularly during the Covid lockdowns and in times of economic downturn. Had the political momentum for “Shuang Tan” also peaked alongside the country’s carbon dioxide emissions? Will decarbonisation targets be further sidelined to make way for short-term priorities, particularly on economic development and national security？
OVERSHOOTING 1.5°C. The world is evidently off track to meet the 1.5/2°C target set in the Paris Agreement. How does China plan to deal with the consequences of overshooting the 1.5°C threshold, which may happen in the next 2-3 years? Will China consider raising its climate ambitions any time soon against the backdrop of slow economic growth?
What will come after coal and carbon peaking? The country is at the starting line of its three- to four-decade-long decarbonisation journey. How to hold its climate pledge accountable? Transparency is key.
EMISSION DATA. Why hasn’t China updated its National Emission Inventory? What is the most reliable and current CO2 and non-CO2 emission data in China? Do city-level emission databases produced by Chinese scholars reflect reality? Does China plan to address the lack of transparency in its emission data? Will China introduce third-party auditing for its national emission inventory?
MEASURING PROGRESS. Is the low-carbon energy transition on track? How do we measure the annual progress? What are the next milestones to assess China's decarbonisation progress after carbon peaking? Will Gross Ecological Product (GEP), an indicator measuring the value of nature's contribution to human well-being, ever become influential in China's economic and environmental governance?
How do Chinese people think about climate change? Indeed, the voices and actions of non-state stakeholders in China are much scarcer in international media coverage or research reports.
ClIMATE AWARENESS. Are there climate sceptics and deniers in China, or are the majority of Chinese “climate neglecters”? Do Chinese people, particularly the younger generations, care about climate change? Why do they care? Is this because of a deemed national strategy or concerns over their own fates? What are the effective strategies to raise climate awareness among ordinary Chinese people and channel their awareness into action?
CLIMATE ANXIETY. Do Chinese people, particularly the youth, share similar climate anxiety as observed in the West and the South? Is climate anxiety a contributing factor to China's slumping birth rate? Will it be one day?
CLIMATE EDUCATION. How do Chinese people learn about climate change? Has climate science and the socio-economics of climate change been embedded in the syllabus of compulsory education? Is climate education, such as exploitation tours in Antarctica or Shangri-la, reserved for social elites and their offspring? Chinese universities are setting up dozens of new climate institutions named after the “Shuang Tan” pledge. What does this mean for climate education in China?
Sadly, 'just transition' in China wasn't a popular topic in technocrat-dominated discussions on transforming the carbon-intensive energy system or quickly deploying cutting-edge clean technologies. But who are the faces of the transition? Beyond the dollar value of transition costs or adaptation burdens, who are the people actually bearing the consequences of climate inaction?
WINNERS–LOSERS. Is China’s climate adaptation plan adequate for the disastrous consequences that the country has been experiencing, from extreme heat to floods across the country? Who is benefiting from the clean economy boom? Who gets hit the most? Who will be sacrificed in the long run? What’s China’s plan for coal workers and the communities and regions heavily reliant on coal?
EQUIBLE TRANSITION. Will the clean transition deepen existing social injustices, such as domestic violence, occupational diseases, and inequitable income distribution? Does China recognise the opportunity provided by the clean transition to advance social justice? Has China taken substantial actions to level up marginalised groups who are most affected by the energy transition? Will it? How can financial innovation play a role in fostering an equitable transition? How do we hold "greenwashers" accountable?
ASSIGNING RESPONSIBILITIES. Will China introduce the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle in its domestic climate legislation and address the differentiated historical contribution to climate change and mitigation capacity across provinces and sectors?
CLIMATE NEXUS. How will China deliver its climate pledge while addressing energy and food security challenges, considering that solutions to the latter shouldn’t compromise climate actions? Has China’s energy planners fully considered the impact of climate change on its energy system, particularly changing water patterns for coal, solar, and nuclear energy? Has China exhausted the cost-benefit of “clean coal” since the air pollution campaign in the 2010s?
What are the consequences of the current geopolitical turmoil? Where are we heading? What do de-risking, trade wars, “new cold wars”, and armed conflicts mean for the global climate agenda? How about peacemaking through climate action?
CLIMATE COOPERATION. Is China-US/-EU climate cooperation still possible in a much more intensified geopolitical competition? What could break the stalemate holding back China-US climate cooperation? What are the best venues to engage China in climate diplomacy if the usual intergovernmental and civil society tracks are no longer efficient and effective? Shall we prepare for a scenario in which China withdraws from the multilateral climate process?
GREENER SUPPLY CHAIN. Given that China won’t disappear from the global clean energy supply chain, what are the venues to improve Chinese actors' social, environmental, and governance (ESG) performance? What safeguards must be implemented to ensure the critical minerals produced in China or elsewhere are responsibly sourced socially and environmentally? What are the exit plans for supply chain dependency on China when exposures to ESG risks become inevitable and unabatable?
CONFLICT ESCALATION. Should the tensions around Taiwan or China's other claims escalate into a conflict, among other things, how will they impact the global clean energy supply chains? How will the escalated conflicts between China, China's neighbouring countries, and "the West" derail global progress on climate change and its own at home? Could decarbonisation possibly act as a stepping stone for peace?
How do we unlock the information black box in China? How do we enrich our toolbox? How do we maintain the narrowing venues of engagement so that we can “help”, “engage”, “incentivise”, or “collaborate” with China to accelerate climate action—or, shall we adopt new alternative solutions?
GLOBAL CHINA. How can China contribute to accelerating the global energy transition? How can China support vulnerable countries in adapting to climate change? What is China's role in transforming the international financial system to align with climate targets? Is China building “green soft power”? Is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) getting greener or silently dying out? How can international climate finance and technology transfer be facilitated without appearing coercive?
EXTERNAL INFLUENCE. What are the most effective ways for the international community to accelerate China's transition, given its strong desire to follow its own path and resistance to foreign influence? Do external factors, such as geopolitical dynamics, still have an influence on Chinese policymaking? Can a science-based international consensus possibly override the nationalistic overtones?
Special thanks go to...
…and anonymous participants:
Political Economist (US/China)
Climate Tech Investor (China)
Climate Philanthropist (China)
Veteran Climate Activist (China/ASEAN)
Senior Expert on ESG (China)
Senior Consultant on Climate Governance (China/EU)
Senior Consultant on Circular Economy (China/EU)
Want to hear how the leading China climate experts respond to the challenging questions? Stay tuned for the next article in the three-part series.
In the third article, we will look into the future: What will China’s climate landscape look like in one, three, and ten years?
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Till next time,