China is a climate leader but still isn't doing enough on emissions, report says

A layer of smog over Taiyuan, China, on Jan 24, 2018. Despite becoming a global leader in climate policy, China needs to take major steps to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report released by Columbia University.
A layer of smog over Taiyuan, China, on Jan 24, 2018. Despite becoming a global leader in climate policy, China needs to take major steps to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report released by Columbia University. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - China has become a global leader in policy and diplomacy on limiting the effects of climate change, but it still needs to take significant steps to curb its own carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report released Thursday (July 19).

The report, written by David Sandalow, a former US energy official now at Columbia University, takes a broad look at emissions and coal use in 2017 in China, which is by far the world's top emitter of the heat-trapping gases that accelerate climate change.

The study also analyses recent policy moves on climate by the country's government and by the Communist Party.

China has wide-ranging climate policies, enshrined in the national Five-Year Plans and in blueprints at provincial and local levels. As a result, the report says, it is on its way to meeting major climate change goals, including lowering a measure known as carbon intensity, having carbon dioxide emissions reach a peak no later than 2030 and having a fifth of energy come from non-fossil-fuel sources by that year.

At the same time, the report says, if China's carbon emissions continue at the current pace, nations will find it harder to meet important climate change policy goals - most notably limiting the average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Even if China's emissions decrease after 2030, that goal could be much harder to achieve unless they then drop rapidly.

In 2017, China emitted 11.7 billion metric tonnes of heat-trapping gases, a quarter of the world's total. That included 9.2 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, the gas most responsible for accelerated climate change, more than the total for the United States and the European Union combined.

After two years of holding steady, China's carbon dioxide emissions increased in 2017, with leading estimates ranging from 1.4 per cent to 4.1 per cent growth, the report says. That was largely because it burned more coal, the main source of emissions.

Coal consumption and emissions in China had flattened before 2017, giving hope to advocates of climate change policies worldwide. The increase dampened some of that optimism.

Climate and energy researchers say it is always unclear at the time whether a country's carbon emissions are reaching a peak, with a definitive picture only emerging years later. That was true of the United States, which until recently was the world's largest carbon-dioxide emitter. Emissions in the United States peaked in 2007 before falling, according to a Norwegian research group.

 
 
 

Chinese emissions tripled from 2000 to 2012, at a time when China was experiencing double-digit economic growth, in part driven by its entry into the World Trade Organisation.

Coal is the main energy source for power, manufacturing and construction in China. Whether the country can curb emissions quickly enough to make a notable difference in the global attempts to limit climate change will depend on how much officials there can change the economic structure and energy makeup.

The Columbia report's author, Sandalow, worked as a senior official in the US Department of Energy from 2009 to 2013.

The report noted China's leadership role in global climate change diplomacy.

"The Chinese government has been unwavering in its support for the Paris Agreement," it said.

That agreement was negotiated in December 2015 and signed the next year, and China's vocal support during the process was a major factor in the successful diplomatic efforts.

Last year, President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the agreement, which had been widely praised as a signature global achievement during the Obama administration. President Xi Jinping of China has urged nations to remain committed to the agreement.