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  • China Trends #9
    Questioning China’s Emission Pledges

    Policy Paper - July 2021

Introduction by François Godement, Senior Advisor for Asia

This issue of China Trends focuses on the decarbonization targets of the Chinese economy - on which Institut Montaigne has already commented recently. Our sources point out a malaise or at least some ambiguity among experts and voices for China’s public diplomacy. It is understandable: any target that President Xi has set becomes unquestionable. But he has also, quite aptly, described the path to reach these targets as an "uphill battle". Therefore, commentators owe it to themselves to point out some of the difficulties involved - without challenging the realism of the overall targets. After all, if not before 2030, at least by 2060, many things that could ease the situation can happen - technological innovation, restructuring of what should be an advanced economy, a radical change in energy demand with a smaller population... 
 
Yet commentators have their own reservations, more or less expressed. One is that economic growth will not take a second seat to control of emissions. There is a welcome side to this - one will not easily find in China an advocate of degrowth or "décroissance", that fad of old industrialized societies. Yet, a diminishing population from the next few years onwards, and the completion of the massive urbanization that went on for decades might in themselves bring an element of solution. The trouble is that for at least the next few years, growth will largely mean coal, steel, cement, aluminum and petrochemical products, with the construction sector uniquely predominant: even a 100% ratio of electric mobility would not change that reality.

While the experts want to persuade themselves that decreasing carbon emissions is an inevitable international trend, and that emission control will be a source of growth, there is also an underlying argument that China cannot avoid sticking to a higher level of CO2 emissions. China’s climate diplomacy, as shown here, is a mix of traditional rigidity with adaptation to international demands. Under the former heading, one finds the right to pollute because others did so previously: this moral argument frees China’s diplomacy of any guilt, even if the scale of China’s emissions today dwarfs that of any predecessor in history. Under the second heading, China seeks a role in fostering an "ecological civilization". Indeed it has developed the world’s largest alternative energy sector, and its public diplomacy is at the forefront of greening semantics.

It is largely their full awareness of China's present economic structure that hampers many experts and commentators. We can’t blame them without some hypocrisy: if one sees, in very advanced economies, the difficulty of implementing a green transition in housing and construction, and the role that farming still plays in emissions, as well as the fights among proponents of diverse energy sources, one understands that an energy transition involves and mobilizes the whole of society. China’s vaunted ability to overcome the resistance of social groups, thanks to authoritarianism, falls short when some of the main sectors lobbying for the status quo are the economic pillars of the party-state, and when the achievement of a "moderately prosperous" society is the key argument that the CCP holds up to its people. There is an often heard argument that the green transition is in China’s own interests - since with 30% of global emissions and a high vulnerability to pollution and climate change, it is both guilty and a victim of its own CO2 intensive path. In China as elsewhere, that argument rests on rational decision-making. But large short-term drawbacks, adjustment issues and the question of losers in this transition weigh just as much. We hope that debate will grow in China, because it is only by changing the overall economic structure that the 30/60 pledges will become realistic. 

Marching Towards Carbon Neutrality: Nuances and Undertones

Viviana Zhu, Policy Officer at Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program, takes a look at the Chinese domestic discussion on how to reach the targets set by President Xi Jinping. From the Chinese perspective, carbon neutrality is, first of all, a political decision, which must be achieved. Chinese views suggest that only minimal economic compromises are acceptable while pursuing the reduction of carbon emissions, as economic growth remains a priority. But at the same time, these views mostly provide a positive outlook of China’s greening goals, described as "a new opportunity for wealth creation" rather than a burden. However, below the surface of the positive narrative, doubts seem to emerge regarding the realism of Xi Jinping's roadmap.

The Changing Climate in China’s Coal Debate

Byford Tsang, Senior Policy Adviser at international climate change think tank E3G, takes an in-depth look at the changing climate in China’s coal debate. He notes that there is no clear timeline for when Beijing will publish a clear policy roadmap to support its new emissions targets. However, Xi Jinping did not pull the targets out of thin air. A closer examination of the political conversations reveals that the tides are turning against fossil-based power. To win the "uphill battle", President Xi will have to counter strong political headwinds, as the international and domestic environments remain challenging. 

China's Climate Diplomacy: Continuity and Evolution

Stephen Minas, Associate Professor at the School of Transnational Law, Peking University, and Senior Research fellow at the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London, dives into China’s climate diplomacy in the context of China’s climate neutrality target. Since the early 1990s, China’s climate narrative has remained extraordinarily stable and coherent, presenting itself as a "responsible large developing country". In practice, China’s climate diplomacy has evolved to adapt to a changing environment. China pursues climate diplomacy in multiple fora and configurations, and its growing capabilities create opportunities for greater international cooperation. Whether these opportunities can be fully exploited remains to be seen.

Pictures Copyrights:
China’s Climate Diplomacy in the Shadow of Climate Neutrality © GREG BAKER / AFP

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