China avoids calls for bold action as climate warnings escalate

The Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant.
The Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - As the United Nations warns that countries need to do more to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, the world's biggest carbon emitter has little to offer in the way of stronger action.

While China's top environmental officials reiterated the nation's commitment to the Paris Agreement climate goals during a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday (Nov 27), they didn't address questions on deeper carbon emission cuts called for by the UN or the country's plans for new coal-fired power generation.

They also said China would continue to measure its success in fighting climate change by tracking the falling emissions intensity of its economy, which has helped it to slow but not reverse its growth of carbon emissions.

The warnings over climate change and the need for governments to take stronger action are becoming more dire as world leaders head to Madrid next week for UN climate talks.

Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, the UN said on Tuesday in a report, meaning that governments must commit to deeper and faster carbon emission cuts than previously pledged.

Nations should halve their 2018 pollution levels by 2030 to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 deg C, it said.

China, as the biggest polluter, will have a central role in tackling the problem. While it has spent the most money on clean energy and provides cheap exports of green technology to markets worldwide, it consumes about half the planet's coal and is forecast to drive a global surge in coal-fired power plants.

"As the world's largest developing country, on the one hand, we continue to work hard to advance the fight against climate change," Mr Zhao Yingmin, China's vice-environmental minister, said at the briefing.

"On the other hand, we are indeed facing multiple challenges such as developing the economy, improving people's livelihood, eliminating poverty and controlling pollution."


As part of its 2015 Paris Agreement pledge, China aims to bring emissions to a peak around 2030 and cut emissions per unit of economic growth by as much as 65 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Mr Zhao said the country has already achieved its 2020 target to cut it by 45 per cent from those levels.

Without that reduction, China would have emitted an extra 5.26 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year, he said.


The intensity reduction, though, has been dwarfed by China's GDP growth, which has risen by 390 per cent since 2005, meaning overall carbon emissions have risen by more than half since then.

The UN proposed in its annual Emissions Gap report on Tuesday that China should ban all new coal-fired power plants and move towards developing carbon-free electricity, steps the authors described as "clearly ambitious".

During the briefing on Wednesday, Mr Zhao didn't answer a question about China's future plans for coal-fired power.

To be sure, China's commitment to reaching its 2015 goals stands in stark contrast to the United States, where President Donald Trump earlier this month formally began the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord.

Mr Zhao also seemed to take a swipe at Mr Trump's trade war, saying that protectionism is damaging the world's economy, which reduces the willingness of countries to make costly changes needed to cope with climate change.


China will push for the use of financial markets to help cut greenhouse gas emissions, Mr Li Gao, head of the climate department in the Ministry of Ecology & Environment, said during the briefing, but added its plan to launch the world's biggest carbon market is complicated.

That's because its carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing, unlike in the European Union or California, which run similar market-based programmes, he said.


The nation missed a 2018 target to finalise carbon trading rules due to regulatory restructuring, which saw responsibility for the carbon market moved to the new environment ministry.

An adviser to the Chinese government on climate change policies said in May that it aimed to launch the market in 2020.


On Wednesday, Mr Zhao said building the carbon market would be part of the country's 14th Five-Year Plan, which doesn't begin until 2021.

"We hope to basically establish a national carbon market with a complete system, active trading, strict supervision and transparency," Mr Zhao said.

The UN climate talks in Madrid, known as COP25, are scheduled to begin on Dec 2.

Mr Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, has committed US$500 million (S$683.18 million) to launch Beyond Carbon, a campaign aimed at closing the remaining coal-powered plants in the US by 2030 and slowing the construction of new gas plants.