It’s not easy to pin down exactly what came out of the recent G20 meeting in Hangzhou; most headlines in Chinese media merely reiterated China’s pride in hosting the event and asserted the importance of ongoing international cooperation. The one key achievement seemed to be that the US and China had signed the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Most of the negotiations had of course already occurred behind the scenes, but that didn’t detract from the significance of this milestone: the world’s two largest emitters were on board. Having these two players involved was a big boost, as the agreement basically pushes these countries to keep global climate change to less than 2 degrees higher than pre-industrial times, while shooting for just 1.5 degrees.
Sure enough, with India and a significant chunk of the EU signing on in October, the agreement reached its target and came into force on November 4.
While that all sounds well and good, it doesn’t explain how these countries are reducing their carbon footprint.
Executive Director of Programs at WWF China, Dr. Li Lin, points out that in June of last year, China signed on to some of the most significant commitments that are currently in play, due to be reached by 2030. These included having China reach its peak emissions in 2030 or sooner as well as reducing the amount of carbon emissions to 65 percent of what they were in 2005, per unit of GDP (which would represent a reduction of 60 percent).
This would include bumping up China’s proportion of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix to 20 percent, and adding 4.5 billion cubic meters of forest stock compared to 2005 levels.
Naturally, however, circumstances in China are subject to change, particularly given the current growth slowdown. Li points out that this has positive and negative effects in terms of reducing carbon emissions. “In the short term, to some extent, the economic slowdown makes it easier. For instance, coal consumption has been declining since 2014,” she says. “This makes carbon emission reduction targets easier to achieve, but there are economic growth imperatives that push some regions or sectors to invest in unsustainable projects to stimulate GDP growth in the short term but result in disaster in the long term, such as coal or chemical industries.”
So what is the answer?
“The only true solution which can help China reach those commitments is energy transition, which relies on upgrading industries and technology innovation,” Li says.
Before looking at the progress however, it’s important to note there are of course plenty of caveats regarding China’s energy production, which still relies heavily on coal. In April, authorities halted approvals on new coal projects, sidelining many until 2018, but then in July Greenpeace claimed that, on average, one was still being opened each week and this would continue until 2020, because the coal projects were already in the works or they had found loopholes. Greenpeace said that opening these excess plants amounted to a waste of a trillion RMB due to overcapacity. Wastage was a key theme of an earlier The New York Times report which found many local governments were investing in new coal plants as they were an attractive form of revenue, in part due to tax benefits.
That being said, there are positive signs in a shift toward more sustainable energy options. A WWF report, released in October, titled “15 Signals: Evidence the Energy Transition is Underway”, points out that coal consumption is still declining, having dropped by a massive 9.7 percent in the first half of 2016. So even though China may or may not be boosting the numbers of coal plants, actual consumption appears to be decreasing.
The report also found that worldwide, in 2015, renewable energy employment reached a peak of 8.1 million jobs, of which a massive 43 percent, or 3.52 million jobs, were based in China. The report also states that in 2015, China was also the leading investor in renewable energy, bumping up its investment by 17 percent to 103 billion USD that year.
Perhaps the most important figure included in the report relates to total emissions worldwide. Drawing upon International Energy Agency (IEA) figures, the WWF report states that coal power emissions worldwide plateaued for the second year in a row, despite global growth continuing. The IEA explains this by citing improvements in energy efficiency, a spur in renewables led by wind as well as the decline in coal use by the two biggest world emitters in the world. In December 2015, the IEA stated, “Following more than a decade of aggressive growth, global coal demand has stalled,” in its annual coal report, adding that the report had “sharply lowered its five-year global coal demand growth forecast in reflection of economic restructuring in China, which represents half of global coal consumption.”
“Target Acquired” is a story from our issue, “Climate Change”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store