BEIJING (NYTIMES) - China formalised the pledges its leader announced last year, but the country went no further in an official update of its targets to fight climate change, which were submitted on Thursday (Oct 28) with the United Nations climate change agency.
It foreshadows a grim start to international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, next week, considering that China's emissions account for the largest share in the world.
It reflects the political and economic challenges within China in pivoting away from fossil fuels.
China burns more coal than every other country combined in order to power its factories and produce the massive amounts of steel and cement used in its construction projects.
And so what China does, from now to 2030, is crucial to global efforts to slow down catastrophic climate change.
The updated Nationally Determined Contributions commit to four main things that China's leader, President Xi Jinping, outlined nearly a year ago: China would peak its emissions of carbon dioxide, a key planet-warming greenhouse gas produced by the combustion of oil, gas and coal, before 2030; it would also lower the carbon emissions intensity of its economy by 65 per cent compared with 2005 levels; it would ensure that renewable energy sources make up one-fourth of its energy mix; and it would increase its forest cover.
None of these are new. They were all announced by Mr Xi in December 2020, and they fall far short of what many climate advocates inside and outside China had hoped for.
"It doesn't advance the ball sufficiently," US climate envoy John Kerry said on Thursday morning.
The latest scientific research says global greenhouse gas emissions must be nearly halved by 2030 to avert the worst consequences of climate change, or keep global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, compared with the beginning of the industrial era.
The world has already seen its average temperature rise by 1 degree Celsius.
The United States has produced the largest share of global emissions cumulatively since the start of the industrial age.
China produces the largest share of global emissions currently.
Mr Li Shuo, policy adviser for Greenpeace China, said Beijing had "missed an opportunity to demonstrate ambition".
"China's decision casts a shadow on the global climate effort," Mr Li said. "The planet can't afford this being the last word. Beijing needs to come up with stronger implementation plans to ensure an emission peak before 2025."
Dr Bernice Lee, a China expert at London-based think tank Chatham House, called China's plans part of "a wide malaise" among big economies that were failing to make emissions cuts immediately, as the scientific consensus demands.
"We can't sugarcoat it: Beijing's new climate plan is disappointing," she said in a statement.
"China has lowballed its target and missed a chance to be recognised as a global leader."
China has taken many steps in the past five years to slow its growth in emissions of greenhouse gases. But the country's efforts have run into trouble this autumn.
Electricity demand has continued to increase strongly as China captures a larger share of the global market for manufactured goods.
Widespread electricity shortages and even blackouts that began last month spurred an expansion of coal use.
This month, the government said it would expand production capacity by 220 million metric tonnes of coal per year, for an increase in output of nearly 6 per cent.
"With the continuation of industrialisation and urbanisation," China's submission to the UN climate agency reads, "energy demand will keep rising while it is unlikely to fundamentally change the coal-dominated energy mix in the short term."
Mr Xi faces political and economic constraints even after consolidating enormous personal power.
The entire Chinese economy is slowing under the weight of debt that has rapidly been accumulating since the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009.
Manufacturing, particularly for export markets, has been the strongest area left of the Chinese economy.
But factories also consume 70 per cent of China's electricity, making them the obvious targets for rationing and higher prices during the recent electricity shortages.