Does China believe in climate change?

After the corona crisis : Has China put climate protection aside?

The focus of the Chinese stimulus package, for which 900 billion US dollars are planned, is to focus on work and poverty reduction. The topic of “New Infrastructure”, which China’s leadership sees primarily in the expansion of digitization, is also supported. Details of the “green” shares in the planned investments are not yet exactly known. It is uncertain whether they will come at all.

"In this year's government report, green keywords appear less often than in last year's report," says Nis Grünberg, an expert at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics). The report gives an overview of the state of the nation, and it also formulates rough goals. “And the goal of the Chinese government is now to stabilize the economy.” Everything else is receding into the background.

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The impression that climate protection is increasingly being sidelined because of the corona crisis is fueled by the fact that the Chinese leadership did not specify the target value for energy efficiency at the current National People's Congress (NPC). China will seek "a further reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP," said Prime Minister Li. But he missed the expected percentage decline that has been guiding policy since 2014.

The 3 percent target has not been achieved

At the same time, the report was presented by China's highest economic authority, the National Development and Reform Commission, as reported by the Bloomberg news agency. The report states that energy efficiency only improved by 2.6 percent in the past year, which means that the 3 percent target was missed.

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All of this is likely to cause concern for the international climate protection community. With the US failing as a reliable partner and possibly leaving the Paris Climate Agreement this year, hopes were high that China would fill the vacuum and take on a new leadership role in climate protection.

It has looked good so far: China’s leadership is very pragmatic about climate protection as something that the country cannot avoid if it wants to keep up with international competition. Especially since climate protection measures often also help to get the environmental problems on one's own doorstep - tilted rivers, polluted air - under control.

Solar parks in a hurry

The decision for more climate protection was hardly made in the subdued social discourse in China, but was decreed from the very top. China is pulling up wind and solar parks in a hurry, without much consideration for the local population. From 2021 to 2030, China plans to add 80 to 160 gigawatts of solar capacity annually. China is the world's largest producer of solar modules, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles. Also, the country has been the largest investor in clean energy for nine of the last ten years.

Merics expert Grünberg does not believe that China has given up its climate protection plan completely because of the corona crisis. “The psyche of the party is designed in such a way that everything that endangers the stability of the country must be eliminated immediately. But climate protection is not written off and will reappear as soon as the economy has stabilized. ”Other regions could influence China by relying on climate criteria for their part or by increasing demand for green products.

Are Europe and the USA still suitable as models?

China will also observe Europe and the USA when it comes to the new national climate target (NDC) that the states are supposed to present this year according to the Paris climate agreement. China is not a country that is pushing ahead with goals, says Grünberg. In this context, the international climate protection movement has great hopes for the China-EU summit, which is to take place in September - if necessary, there could be a virtual meeting.

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The NGO Carbon Tracker rates China's current target for 2030 as “highly unsatisfactory”. China has so far promised that CO2 emissions should peak by 2030. It is likely that the five-year plan that the Chinese government will present next year will put climate protection back on the agenda. The plan could contain a kind of roadmap that shows how China's climate targets for around 2030 can be met.

China's leadership has not yet officially committed itself to the goal of climate neutrality by 2050. “The party leadership only sets goals when they know that they can be adhered to and that they can be celebrated.” Instruments are sustainable criteria in public financing and emissions trading.

A flood of new coal-fired power plants

Should China credibly want to take on the role of a climate pioneer in the world, the country would have to get out of coal in the long term and quickly stop the construction of new power plants. The end of fossil fuels is not in sight. In 2019, almost two thirds of the almost 70 gigawatts of newly commissioned coal capacity was in China. The Chinese authorities recently issued a flood of permits for new coal-fired power plants.

National and international financial experts have recommended that the Chinese central authorities use the economic stimulus package to promote renewable energies. There are economic reasons for this: While renewable energies have become increasingly competitive thanks to lower costs in the electricity market, the profitability of coal-fired power plants in China continues to decline. Almost 60 percent of China's existing coal fleet is operating at a loss.

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