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Is China greener than its reputation? On the path to climate neutrality

Is China greener than its reputation? On the path to climate neutrality

No country in the world emits as many greenhouse gases as China. At the same time, the government in Beijing is pushing through the climate transition. A country on a two-pronged path to green.

China is facing a mammoth task: the country with the highest CO2 emissions in the world wants to become climate neutral by 2060. The share of renewable energies in China’s electricity mix has recently increased more than anywhere else in the world. Beijing is flooding the international markets with climate-friendly technologies and is thus contributing to the global green transition. At the same time, the country is clinging to dirty coal and has set new records with its greenhouse gas emissions in recent years.

How does this fit together? And can China follow the green path all the way or will it fail?

Environmental protection becomes industrial policy

When Germany was seriously considering alternatives to fossil fuels in the 1970s after the oil crisis, China was curiously looking towards the West. Until the turn of the century, however, the debate about climate-friendly alternatives was still in its infancy there, with the priority being the goal of bringing prosperity to as many Chinese as possible. Environmental goals were mentioned in the party and state’s five-year plans, but were never binding. The Communist Party was able to ignore the harmful consequences of the coal-based economic miracle for a long time, not least because the sector lifted millions of people out of poverty.

However, just as in the post-war period in the West, the Chinese suffered from significant air pollution, especially in urban areas. For city dwellers, this was sometimes so unbearable that in 2003 there were mass protests against the pollution in the air and water. The party leadership had no choice but to make the environmental regulations mandatory in its five-year plans.

Since then, regional governments have been judged on whether they comply with the limits for harmful substances and gases in the air and water. In addition, China discovered that the green transformation can also be an economic driver: with cheap loans and high subsidies, the party leadership convinced companies to use renewable technologies and is now even diverting investments from the government for this purpose.

“The mix of industrial policy, regulation and tough rules has led to renewable energies becoming an important economic factor in China,” says political scientist Genia Kostka, who studies the topic at the Free University of Berlin. In some regions, however, the unemployment rate has risen and economic growth has collapsed because some industries and coal-fired power plants have been closed. “At the same time, people hoped that the green transformation would cushion such side effects.”

With the “new three” to the top of the international markets

Meanwhile, experts are arguing whether the fight against climate change can be won with this so-called “ecological authoritarianism”. China observer Nis Grünberg is working on the country’s sustainable development at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) and says: “You simply need the political will and you also have to put the money in and invest it.”

The West is currently feeling this on the international markets: With the so-called “new three” – batteries, solar cells and electric cars – China has blossomed into a global production center and catapulted itself to the top of the international markets within just a few years.

The Chinese government is primarily promoting the expansion of solar energy through two major programs. 15 of the 22 provinces are involved. In 2023, the number of systems in the country rose more than ever before, reports the think tank Carbon Brief. China exported a large proportion of the panels to Africa and South Asian countries. With the subsidized technology, China has drastically reduced international prices: the cost of solar energy fell by 40 percent last year, and batteries were only half as expensive as the year before.

2023 was also a record year for wind power plants, write the experts at Carbon Brief. However, Beijing is focusing more on reviving old wind farms by replacing only the turbines. New wind projects are hardly receiving any state funding because the high prices of raw materials would depress profits.

According to Carbon Brief, there is now a little more money to spend on electric vehicles. Purchases have been subsidized for 13 years, and the range is correspondingly large: According to Carbon Brief, there are 94 electric car brands with more than 300 models across the country. 25 to 30 percent of new registrations in the country are electric cars, and the number is expected to continue to rise in the coming years. Beijing has expanded the necessary infrastructure for this: by 2022, 80 percent of megacities and 65 percent of motorway service stations nationwide were equipped with charging stations.

China’s Achilles heel

For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, China has been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis by the Finnish research group Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Due to the construction and real estate crisis, demand for the cement and steel industries, which are particularly harmful to the climate, is also falling, while solar and wind power plants are being expanded further. However, they only make up 15 percent of China’s electricity mix. In theory, the existing plants could pump more electricity into the grid. In practice, however, this does not work because the expansion of the power lines is stalling.

The plants cannot even begin to meet the country’s immense energy needs, which is why Beijing continues to rely on fossil resources. Over 60 percent of China’s total energy needs are met by coal, and more than a quarter are generated by oil and gas, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA). China remains the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions.

How realistic are China’s long-term climate goals?

Will that change? China experts are unsure. Coal is still considered the most reliable source of energy and secures almost three million jobs. China is also unlikely to say goodbye to oil and gas imports by 2060. “The country’s energy demand is still high and will continue to rise,” predicts Kostka. Solar and wind power are expected to additionally meet demand, but they will probably never completely replace fossil fuels. In addition, the country has approved at least two new coal-fired power plants per week in the first half of 2023.

The country is seriously planning to reduce its emissions from 2030. With its rigorous climate policy, the leadership in Beijing could reach the target as early as next year, researchers estimate. But after that, the ambitions could be over. There are fears that China’s greenhouse gas emissions will continue at a minimally lower level after that. Net zero emissions are unrealistic in this scenario.

“Technically speaking, the 2060 climate target would be achievable for China,” believes Grünberg. To do this, China would have to remove the remaining emissions from the air using geoengineering methods. However, carbon storage in the sea or underground (CCS) is controversial worldwide because it is unclear whether carbon can really be stored underground without any problems. But perhaps there will soon be a solution in the West – which China will then make ready for the market.

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Source: Stern

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