When President Donald Trump yanked America’s support for the Paris Climate Accords, pundits were quick to hail China as the world’s new environmental leader. Two veteran journalists wrote that the decision was “the greatest strategic gift to the Chinese, who are eager to fill the void that Washington is leaving around the world.”
But is leadership on climate change really a strategic gift? Do the Chinese want it? And above all, do they merit it? The quick answer is no, no and no.
True global leadership is costly: It requires vision, creativity, perseverance, deft diplomacy and often cold, hard cash. It also demands a willingness on the part of political leaders to align, and in some cases subordinate, their own narrow interests to those of the larger international community. The Chinese, including President Xi Jinping, understand this. That is why any number of Chinese analysts have been quick to reject the idea that Chinese leadership on climate change is realistic, arguing as one did, “Taking on global leadership is too much, too soon for China.” Xi Jinping, himself, is somewhat less willing to reject the idea out of hand. China as a global power shaping norms and institutions is a central element of his rejuvenation narrative. He therefore flirts with the prospect, proclaiming China ready to defend globalization and to protect the Paris climate agreement. But nowhere does Xi say that China will actually lead; that is left to others.
So where does China stand on the climate leadership spectrum? First, the good. It will meet its Paris commitment: By 2030, China’s CO2 emissions will peak and its energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP) will be reduced by 60-65 percent. In addition, Beijing is making strides toward rebalancing its energy mix. This year it cancelled 85 new coal fired power plants on top of the 18 that it cancelled last year; if brought on line, these 103 new plants would have exceeded China’s 2020 targets of 1100GW of coal-fired power capacity by 150 GW. (By way of comparison, total U.S. energy produced from coal is 350GW.) Moreover, China has pledged not to approve new coal-fired power plants in as many as 13 provinces and regions until 2018. (Of course, one might reasonably ask what is happening in the other 18 provinces and regions, and what 2018 might bring.) China has also stepped up its commitment to renewable energy. In 2016 China invested $78.3 billion in renewable energy—topping both Europe ($59.8 billion) and the United States ($46.4 billion). China also ranks first in terms of total installed renewable electric capacity. Much of this capacity, however, remains idle. In 2016, in three of the most wind power-rich provinces and regions—Gansu, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia—for example, levels of curtailment (capacity not utilized) reached 43 percent, 38 percent and 21 percent respectively. The curtailment rate for solar energy was similarly high. In contrast, curtailment rates in the United States and Europe are generally between 0-5 percent. In the wait and see category, China is reportedly set to launch a nationwide CO2 cap and trade system sometime this year. This system could be spectacular, or it could be spectacularly embarrassing.
Now the bad. China is still the largest emitter of CO2 on the planet by a substantial margin, contributing 29 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions in 2015. The United States comes in a distant second at 14 percent. In addition, while Beijing is cutting back on coal-fired power plants—particularly in its wealthy and pollution-conscious coastal provinces—it is upping its count of CO2 emitting coal-to-chemical (including coal-to-gas) plants. There are 46 coal-to-chemical plants in operation and another 22 under construction that will add another 193 million tons of carbon emissions annually. A conservative estimate suggests that by 2020, such plants will contribute as much CO2 as all of Poland’s contribution to global carbon emissions, while the extreme scenario—if China builds all the coal-to-chemical plants outlined in its 13th Five Year Plan—will lead to a contribution of almost 800 million tons per year, more than German’s total carbon emissions in 2015, and equal to roughly 10 percent of China’s current CO2 contribution.
China also falls short in the eyes of some independent monitoring groups that assess countries’ climate commitments. The 2017 annual report by German Watch and the Climate Action Network ranks China 48th—just a few places behind the United States at 43rd—in terms of how much it has done to avoid climate change and how much it plans to do. True climate leadership belongs to the Europeans—France, Sweden and the United Kingdom, in particular—although even these climate leaders come in for some criticism. Moreover, the Climate Action Tracker, produced by three international research institutions, indicates that China’s current emission reduction targets are not consistent with ensuring that the earth’s warming remains below 2 degrees C.
And finally the ugly. Whatever positive steps China is taking at home are not being replicated in its behavior abroad. China is the world’s largest exporter of coal-fired power plant finance and technology. Even as Xi is calling for an “international coalition for green development on the Belt and Road” (his comprehensive new trade and development initiative involving 65 countries), Beijing is backing more than 100 new coal-fired power projects in the Belt and Road countries. China’s much-touted Belt and Road deals in Pakistan, for example, include plans for as many as 12 coal-fired power plants—even in areas recognized for their superior solar energy potential. In addition, China is actively pushing coal-to-chemical plants abroad. The Paris accords don’t account for countries’ actions outside their own borders, so China is not breaking the letter of its Paris commitments, but these Belt and Road investments are certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the agreement.
Beyond the clear limitations of China’s climate policies at home and abroad, there remains the larger question of diplomatic leadership. Will China rally other countries to adopt another round of more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets? Will it stop the overseas financing and sale of coal-fired power plants and coal-to-chemical plants? Will it push forward to limit other harmful greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane? Will it accede to international monitoring and verification of its emissions, an important measure it continues to reject? Thus far, there is no indication that China has plans to adopt any of these leadership-worthy measures.
When Trump, in the midst of withdrawing the United States from the Paris agreement, offered up the possibility of renegotiating the climate pact, the rest of the world in effect said, “not going to happen.” Undoubtedly other countries are becoming accustomed to the idea of a world without American leadership. But filling the void left by the United States must be earned, not simply granted by overeager officials and pundits. China may one day earn that right, but not today.