There is nothing quite like a crisis to expose the weaknesses in systems and societies.
Last year, a number of countries promised to lessen reliance on fossil fuels and announced ambitious net-zero targets. The backpedaling on many of these commitments has been furious ever since the Russia-Ukraine conflict triggered a dip in supplies and a hike in natural gas prices.
The United Kingdom has since lifted a ban on fracking, and analysis from energy think tank Ember Climate shows that European Union member states will invest $50 billion into the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure this winter.
“As with any global event, the Ukraine conflict has shifted priorities toward an agenda other than climate change,” said Ajay Gambhir, a climate economist at Imperial College London. “This brings risks that mitigation action will be delayed.”
It remains to be seen if Europe’s pivot to fossil fuels represents a short-term blip or a long-term blow to international efforts to curb global warming.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China must perform its own balancing act between energy security and green ambitions.
Amid the global energy crisis, climate observers are paying close attention to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China to find out if the country plans to reaffirm its climate commitments and emissions targets, or recalculate them.
Recent signs have been promising. At a United Nations climate change round table in New York on Sept 21, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China plans to “unswervingly follow the path of ecological priority, green and low-carbon development”.
And an independent analysis from the Climate Action Tracker, or CAT, shows that China is on course to meet several key climate targets early.
In 2020, China pledged to peak emissions by 2030 and reduce carbon intensity — or emissions per unit of GDP — by over 65 percent in 2030 from 2005 levels.
CAT projects that China is likely to “comfortably overachieve its targets without substantially increasing its current mitigation efforts”. It could achieve peaking by, or slightly after, 2025, and reduce carbon intensity by 67 percent by 2030.
“China has a track record of setting ambitious climate targets which it meets ahead of schedule,” said British economist Nicholas Stern, who is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. “It is a sign of the importance that China attaches to setting ambitious but credible targets.”
Stern said it has been “apparent for some time” that China’s annual emissions of greenhouse gasses could peak well before 2030 by “accelerating its transition away from fossil fuels, particularly coal”.
“China’s economy would benefit from the investments in low-carbon growth that would be required to peak emissions in 2025,” he said. “And it would be a demonstration of leadership and signal the seriousness of China’s intent to achieve carbon neutrality.”
A chief reason China has been able to keep targets in sight is that climate commitments have been embedded in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).
China’s five-year plans are a set of social and economic initiatives that act as a blueprint for national development strategies for the period. The five-year plan is arguably one of the most important documents in the world when it comes to climate change.
Transformative measures on energy consumption and emissions in the last three five-year plans have led to unprecedented surges in green development. China invested $758 billion in renewable energy capacity between 2010 and mid-2019, which was equivalent to a third of the global total, according to United Nations data.
The 14th Five-Year Plan set binding targets for emissions peaking, carbon intensity and energy consumption, and also promoted low-carbon transformation in industry, construction, transportation and other key areas of the economy.
Last year, China’s national energy consumption per unit of GDP fell by 2.7 percent year-on-year, and carbon dioxide per unit of GDP fell by 3.8 percent, according to analysis from the Center for China Study, or CCS, which is a think tank connected with Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
CCS Director Hu Angang said that China is “spurring the green renewable-energy revolution”, with clean energy accounting for 25.5 percent of total energy consumption last year, up 1.2 percentage points year-on-year.
China will once again overachieve on renewable targets, according to the CAT, which found that growth in nonfossil energy shares and solar and wind capacity installations will “surpass the country’s official nationally determined contribution targets”.
The proliferation of renewables over the past decade in China has occurred at such a scale that it has influenced global markets, bringing down the cost of clean power in comparison to fossil fuels.
“China has already helped to accelerate the global uptake of solar by reducing the costs of manufacturing,” Stern said. “The global market for renewable energy is expanding rapidly, and China is likely to remain a global leader in both the supply of and demand for renewable technologies.”
Stern said that the transition away from coal and toward renewables is essential, from both an environmental and financial perspective, since emissions-heavy power sources run the risk of becoming stranded assets.
“China clearly recognizes the need to accelerate its transition away from coal as a source of energy because of the huge damage it inflicts through air pollution and climate change,” Stern said. “Any new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure risk financial loss as they are likely to be replaced by zero-carbon alternatives before making a return. China’s power system needs urgent reform to allow it to more quickly replace expensive coal with cheaper renewables.”
From an international perspective, China’s coal policy is set to have a notable impact on driving the green transition. Last year, China pledged to end financing for building coal plants overseas, which CAT estimates will result in the cancellation of 43 gigawatts of new coal projects across Asia.
CCS Director Hu said that green projects within the Belt and Road Initiative are also helping to drive down emissions beyond China’s borders.
“China is helping developing countries, especially small island countries, African countries and LDCs (least developed countries), to enhance their capacity and capability to cope with climate change and reduce the adverse effects of climate change,” Hu said.
Stern said that increased collaboration with other large economies must also drive China’s climate agenda.
“It is critically important that China and the United States, as the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, are able to work together on tackling climate change,” he said, adding that the United States has now passed a landmark bill to massively increase investments in clean energy.
Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change, said in August that the US is fully responsible for the current halt in China-US climate cooperation.
In a news conference on Sept 20, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that China remains receptive to working with the US on climate change. The two nations signed a joint declaration to address the global climate crisis at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, in Glasgow in November.
“If China and the US can manage their bilateral relations well, reduce impediments and negative factors and jointly respond to climate change, public health and food and energy security challenges, people of both countries and the world at large will enjoy more benefits,” Wang said.
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