Contradictions Within The PRC’s Climate Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 23

Ding Xuexiang at COP28. (Source: HK01)

The 28th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) drew to a close earlier this week (UNEP, December 13). The COP meetings always produce a mixture of successes and disappointments, and only constitute a portion of the myriad processes that impact the global energy transition and race to stabilize the planetary system. This year’s conference was no different. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was actively engaged throughout, hosting a variety of events at their pavilion reflecting the breadth and depth of the country’s critical engagement with the issues (National Climate Strategy Center, November 28). However, the PRC’s is still appraised as falling far short of what is required to meet the Paris climate goals and is not commensurate with its position in the international system (Climate Action Tracker, November 22). This year, the PRC ranks first in the world for total annual emissions, and second in both cumulative (historical) emissions and GDP. Meanwhile, it has failed to advance its ambitions or provide leadership to match its rhetoric of being—to use Xi Jinping’s words from his Party Congress speech—an “important participant, contributor, and torchbearer” in addressing climate change (Xinhua, November 3, 2017).

The PRC delegation constituted the joint-third largest at the conference, and was led by Zhao Yingmin (赵英民), vice-minister at the Ministry of Environment and Ecology (MEE). Also present were minister Huang Runqiu (黄润秋), special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua (), and UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs Liu Zhenmin (刘振民), who is expected to replace Xie as he steps down after 25 years as the PRC’s top climate negotiator. Crucially, Executive Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), a Politburo Standing Committee member who holds real power over China’s climate policy (in a way that the MEE officials do not), also attended.

There has been a lot of positive energy from the Chinese media in the run up to, and during, the conference (People’s Daily, November 17; People’s Daily, December 14). From a PRC perspective, this is likely to continue following the conference too—not least because the final draft of the global stocktake satisfied China’s key policy goals. There was no reference to a “fossil fuel phase-out,” while there are calls for “tripling renewable energy capacity” and transitioning away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly and equitable manner.”

Ding signalled early on that he was not interested in making any ambitious commitments this year, arguing in an interview that it is developed countries who need to step up, and that “China has always kept its promises and made important contributions to global climate governance” (Xinhua, December 2). This was echoed by Zhao, who said “emphasized … the principles of equity, common but differentiated responsibilities, and respective capabilities … [as] the cornerstones of the global climate governance process,” and praised the results as being “in line with the concept of ecological civilization advocated by China (符合中方倡导的生态文明理念)” (Xinhua, December 15). This rehashing of obsolete talking points suggests that Beijing’s will pursue a strategy that prioritizes its own security and economic stability, and will continue to withstand pressure from the international community to orient towards more ambitious goals.

Internationally, the PRC conceives of itself as having a leading role, particularly with a view to the developing economies of the global south—the Global Development Initiative includes climate change and green development as one of eight areas of focus (MFA, October 18; Global Times, December 30, 2021). However, the decision to categorize itself as a developing country—and thus avoid higher responsibilities under the rubric of “common and differentiated responsibilities”—indicates that the PRC’s stance on climate change does not allow it to shoulder the responsibilities that flow from global leadership. For instance, the decision not to contribute to the loss and damage fund which will provide assistance to developing countries that are already being disproportionately impacted by climate change, and its blocking of any language pertaining to “phasing out” fossil fuels, is in stark contrast with its self-proclaimed status as defender of the interests of the global south (UNFCC, December 13). Another difficulty is the PRC’s insistence that concessions on climate cooperation cannot be unbundled from other issue areas. Hence the comprehensive halt on such cooperation with the United States following former house speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 (People’s Daily, August 25, 2022).

Domestically, the PRC has produced a bewildering number of policy documents, regulations, and other governance tools in the last decade to steer the country onto a greener path. The Third Plenum of 2013 signalled that environment was a key area that underpinned economic reform, and “Ecological Civilization (生态文明)” was enshrined in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011–2015). Just within the last few weeks, the Central Economic Work Conference week signalled the emphasis on accelerating green technologies (Xinhua, December 12); and the National Development and Reform Commission recently announced 35 peak-carbon pilot zones across 15 provinces (NDRC, December 6). Greener growth is clearly a priority for Xi, even if it arises from purely strategic reasons, and his emphasis on this issue has arguably shifted the needle in a positive direction (USCC, March 17, 2022). The dramatic contributions that Chinese firms have made to solar, wind, battery technology, and electric vehicles have been one of the most important stories of the global energy transition to date, though these are often disturbingly entangled with human rights abuses (SHU, November).

Key obstacles remain, however, including China’s obstinate reliance on coal-fired power (CFP). In 2022, the coal output of one province—Shaanxi—was roughly equivalent to that of India. In fairness, measures are being undertaken, such as a recent policy from both NDRC and NEA to provide annual capacity payments to CFP plants to help them transition to provide flexible ramping capacity, rather than constituting the primary source in the energy mix (NDRC, November 8). But policy tools used to date betray a worrying lack of ability to keep coal combustion in check. Despite China’s political system’s unusually high level of coercive power, it often exhibits comparatively weak enforcement effectiveness when it comes to dealing with excessive emissions. This often leads to “blunt force regulation,” whereby central government officials force local bureaucrats to comply with environmental policies and targets that otherwise would not be implemented by shutting down factories for extended periods (Made In China Journal, 2023). Such methods are a costly resort and a reminder of Beijing’s sometimes constrained toolkit when faced with significant interests groups.

Enormous work still remains to be done on constructing a more integrated power grid that breaks down provincial boundaries and allows for a more liberalized power market. The coal industry is also a powerful interest group that stymies reform. It is a large employer with backers in many constituencies from local officials and state-owned enterprises. Even Chinese experts equivocate on whether China should build more CFP plants: “Should China build more coal-fired plants? That depends… In the short term … it’s irreplaceable” (The Paper, December 12).

Recent projections argue that the world is “very likely” to see temperature increases of 2.0 to 4.0°C by 2100, and suggest that achieving the targets laid out in Paris in 2015 are almost impossible (Rhodium Group, November 30; IMF, November 21). By framing climate change as an issue of security—national security, energy security, food security, resource security, social stability—China has made significant progress in recent years. But China is also attempting to affect simultaneous transitions to both a greener economy and a different economic model (Chartbook, November 15). Even if the PRC’s direction of travel is becoming clearer, assessments indicate that solutions remain to be found to the slow pace of change, leaving open questions about the repercussions on China’s domestic political economy, as well as its status on the global stage.