COP21 – The Role of China

On November 30th the UN will kick off the 21st Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris. The goal of the summit is for 196 countries to meet and sign a new climate change agreement that will limit temperature rises to less than 2℃ above pre-industrial levels over the century. It is considered by many to be the “last chance” to lay out the world’s response to climate change: a rapidly urbanizing world is making choices between development models that are either low-carbon or highly carbon-intensive in the long term. Therefore a strong climate deal at COP21 will not only make a significant difference to the ability of individual countries to tackle climate change but also help to meet international development aims.

China’s pledges are uplifting

China’s role at COP21 is critical. It is the world’s largest emitter of GHG emissions, and in 2013 per capita emissions surpassed those of Europe for the first time. By 2014 China had become the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, accounting for 46% of global coal production and 49% of global consumption. Prior to the previous summit in Copenhagen, China was criticized for holding back the progress of an international climate change agreement, however the past five years has seen significant shifts in its position. Due to the unsustainable levels of air pollution and over-dependence on imported natural resources, the Chinese government has significantly tightened regulations on carbon emissions, strengthened law enforcement, and invested intensively in renewable energy sources, and China now represents the world’s fastest growing market and largest investor for renewable sources. China has also made remarkable efforts to drive bilateral cooperation on climate change, a major milestone being the joint US-China commitment to curb carbon emissions announced last November – just five years ago, such joint announcements were considered inconceivable.

In June, China made another pledge to the UN that it would aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60-65% from 2005 levels; that it would increase its share of non-fossil fuels as part of its primary energy consumption to about 20% by 2030; and that it would aim to increase its installed capacity of wind power to 200 GW and solar power to around 100 GW, up from 95.81 GW and 28 GW today, respectively. China’s adoption of a leadership position is seen by many as the start of a new era for climate politics.

What remains dubious?

Despite positivity towards the long-awaited guarantees from China, questions and skepticism from climate advocates remain. To some, China’s pledges are not ambitious enough. The current status quo is for China to increase its use of energy from zero-emission sources to 20% by 2030. That figure isn’t considered high given China has aimed to reach about 15% by 2020 – a mere five-percentage point increase in 10 years is seen as unambitious, particularly in light of the huge growth in renewables. Another recent revelation that drives distrust and potentially undermines China statements of intent is that it has been burning more coal than previous thought. Over the past year China burned up to 17% more coal than the government previously disclosed. The prospect is even gloomier given the amount of newly constructed coal-fired power plants over the past 15 years.

Yet for China to take its leadership further, commitment of financial and institutional support from developed countries must be in place. With COP21 less than one week away, it is high time for negotiators from across the globe to set aside disputes and hammer out a successful agreement.

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