China vs Climate Change: is this just a lip service from China or is it something more?

By Michelle Tsui

As climate change increasingly becomes the most pressing problem the global community is facing, dozens of world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland to attend the COP26 summit. With the likes of the President of the United States Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance, one absentee that is causing distress amongst the global community is the leader of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter: Xi Jinping. Instead, President Xi submitted a written statement to the summit vowing to “provide support to help developing countries do better” and urging all state actors to “tackle the climate challenge together”. In addition to Xi’s absence, the Chinese also sent a smaller delegation to the UN-organized talks, which was unexpectedly quiet in the first week of discussion. Furthermore, the Chinese were also reluctant to cut emissions quickly and opted out of the two pacts to cut methane emissions, and funding for fossil fuel further raised concerns for China’s role in the battle against climate change.

            As of 2019, China accounted for 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions and for the first time exceeded the total greenhouse gas emissions of the developed countries. This statistic far exceeds the US by 16%, which came in second place in total greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, accounting for 57% of the nation’s energy consumptions. With these statistics, China’s climate policies arguably will have the greatest effects on climate change in comparison to other countries.

            “It is hard to make progress when the worlds biggest polluters don’t show up

            Since a little over a decade ago, China has taken a defensive stance on its lack of actions against climate change and its predominantly coal-based economy. Arguing that nations that are already developed should lead the way with more aggressive policies against climate change. Yet in recent years, it is becoming more apparent that this attitude is changing.

During his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020, China[TP1]  offered the international community a glimmer of hope by stating that China “aims to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060”., suggesting that environmental conservation is a part of the state’s national plan. In September of this year, Xi further addressed the same group of world leaders via video, offering further commitments against climate change to “stop building new coal-fire projects abroad” and “supporting other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy sources”. China even vowed to phase down the use of coal, which they have been defending the use of a decade ago, instead opting for greener energy choices in the future. However, It is important to note that China’s aim for carbon neutrality only applies to CO2 and not the other greenhouse gases which arguably cause more adverse effects on the environment. Even though China has also vowed to reduce the emissions of other greenhouse gases, specific goals against greenhouse gas emissions were not established. Thus, suggesting that China will continue to emit other greenhouse gases such as Methane, and Nitrous Oxide. Furthermore, in a document released by the Chinese government via the Xinhua news agency, the Chinese government announced that they have established a national working committee  to tackle climate change with local working parties established in all provinces and major cities across the nation. However, China has yet to disclose its action plan for these newly established working parties against climate change.

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Although China has established policies to tackle climate change, the general consensus from the international deems her[TP2]  policies to be highly insufficient, with some even suggesting that the Chinese policies as futile in the efforts against climate change. However, the Chinese government strongly stresses that China will implement climate policies at its own pace and will not be pressurized by other states and international norms. This could perhaps be viewed as a protest against states in the global north, who had time to develop their economy prior to climate change being a global concern. Therefore, despite other international actors voicing their concerns over the effectiveness of China’s climate policies, China is unlikely to participate in internationally agreed pacts against carbon emissions and climate change.

            While the absence of Xi at COP26 and the Chinese’s reluctance to support its two most important pacts might be alarming, it is not surprising. Xi’s absence can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. The president has not left China since the beginning of the pandemic, and while this seems like the most obvious reason, others speculate differently. Some believe that Xi Jinping’s China no longer feels compelled to cooperate with the US and its allies on any matters, preferring to proceed on its own terms. This is reinforced by the lack of support for any action plan proposed in COP26 and in the document published by Xinhua news agency in which it states that China will implement its action plan against climate change based on its national interest. 

Despite the lack of action of from China and willingness to cooperate with other states on the matter, its attitude towards climate change has certainly changed for the better. However, it is clear that China still prioritizes its goal to become the biggest economy on the planet over any other issues. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Chinese fulfill the goals of their climate policies, or if their prioritization of economic development would hinder the progress of their environmental policies. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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