China dashes hopes of raising its climate ambition at UN climate summit

No further emissions targets were offered by China but it did lead on nature-based solutions
<p>The UN secretary general opening the summit (Image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe)</p>

The UN secretary general opening the summit (Image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

China decided against raising its climate ambition at the UN climate action summit in New York.

UN secretary general António Guterres called on countries to bring concrete new targets to a special summit he created ahead of the UN General Assembly. The aim was to compel countries into stronger action on climate change and get on track to meet the Paris Agreement.

Rachel Kyte, head of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative at the UN, said the summit would showcase the “tip of the spear of ambition”. China, despite increasing its rhetoric and actions on international climate leadership in recent years, did not position itself at the forefront on this occasion, leaving its commitment to increasing its climate ambition by 2020 in question.

A range of ambition

Many countries did heed the secretary general’s call to increase ambition. Seventy-seven have committed to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The US has not offered any commitments. President Trump made a surprise appearance at the summit – staying for just ten minutes.

Other major developed countries were also absent, including Japan and Australia. The countries have both continued support for coal, which goes against Gutterres’ call for no new coal plants after 2020.

Meanwhile, China was given a speaking slot on the “coal to clean energy” panel, likely due to its reduction in coal use at home. However, China is still the largest public financier of overseas coal power and is considering building hundreds more coal plants domestically.

Staying the course

Ahead of the summit, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued a position paper that was noticeably missing the word “torchbearer”. China used the term to describe its international climate leadership after the US announced it would withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017. Instead, China is now referring to itself merely as an “active participant”.

China’s position at the summit reflected its rhetorical shift. During his allotted three-minute speaking slot, foreign minister Wang Yi reaffirmed China’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and to delivering on existing commitments. Crucially, he stopped short of mentioning any new plans to up China’s targets. He did not repeat the commitment China and France made in a joint statement in July on the sidelines of the G20 to update their national commitments by 2020. And on overseas investments, Wang Yi committed only to “jointly greening the Belt and Road”.

Instead, China’s position paper and Wang Yi’s remarks cast backward when it came to specifics, citing China’s progress in reducing the carbon intensity of its economy ahead of schedule and reducing the share of coal in its energy mix.

“The announcement shows that China is doing quite a lot,” said Alex Wang, a professor of law at UCLA whose research focuses on environmental issues in China. “There was some hope that China would be more aggressive, and we haven’t quite seen that yet.”

China’s existing commitment under the Paris Agreement is rated as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker, meaning that if all countries applied its level of ambition the world would warm by 3 to 4C.

“China has a tendency to under promise and over deliver,” said Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale NUS. It is set to meet its current targets early. A couple of weeks ago, a senior government researcher told Reuters that China could peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2022; its current target is around 2030.

“The climate clock is ticking, putting countries under pressure to do more,” said Li Shuo, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “True leaders rise to the challenges of their time. To be a true climate leader, Beijing needs to peak emissions sooner and at a lower level.”

Why is China delaying?

Five years ago, presidents Xi Jinping and Obama met and jointly announced plans to reduce emissions, laying the foundation for the Paris Climate Summit a year later. Hsu pointed out that under a different US administration, this would have been the time for another bilateral statement, a year ahead of the 2020 deadline to increase climate targets under the Paris Agreement.

This time the world’s largest emitter was alone on the stage.

Wang Yi said, “The withdrawal of certain parties will not shake the collective will of the international community nor will it possibly reverse the historical trend of international cooperation.”

But experts said the lack of partnership could be making China hesitate.

“You do see the harm of what the Trump administration is doing,” Alex Wang said. “Before, with Obama, there was the sense that both sides were egging each other on to do more. Now that dynamic is completely gone.”

The ongoing trade war with the US and slowing economic growth could also be weighing on China, according to Li Shuo.

China is preparing its next Five Year Plan, the 14th, which will be put into effect in 2021. It may also be waiting to align its targets with that planning process, Hsu said. “My suspicion is that they did not want to put the cart before the horse in this case.”

China leading on nature-based solutions

While China announced no further steps on climate, it did work together with New Zealand to bring proposals to the summit on “nature-based solutions” – using nature to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Susan Gardner, director of the ecosystems division at UN Environment and one of the coordinators of the nature-based solutions (NBS) track, said that the “secretary general specifically looked for countries to lead… where there was, in his opinion, the best opportunities to be real champions for the workstream”. She said China’s leadership on creating an eco-civilisation stood out.

Xi Xie, climate and energy director of the Nature Conservancy in China, said it was the first time China had taken on this kind of climate leadership role at the UN.

As a coalition led by New Zealand and China, the countries produced a manifesto attesting to the value of NBS, such as afforestation, to provide significant, cost-effective emissions reduction. One of the key proposals was to get countries to adopt NBS in their next round of Paris contributions, something that China did in its first submission with significant afforestation targets.

Gardner said the summit is supposed to be a “springboard” for further international action on nature-based solutions. In his speech, Wang Yi highlighted that a new “friends of NBS” coalition had been created, yet it remains unclear how many of the goals laid out in the manifesto will be implemented or financed by the track’s leaders or the new coalition.

With China preparing to host its first major international environmental summit, the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, in 2020, the subject is expected to receive concerted attention from the Chinese government.

Hsu commented that while natural solutions are challenging in themselves, countries should not be distracted from tackling thornier problems such as decarbonising industry.

With China’s emissions rising by an estimated 4% in the first half of 2019, due to increased production from “smokestack” industries, the challenge looms large.