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Progress in reducing the effects of climate change was mixed at China’s 28th Conference of Parties (COP28).
Progress in reducing the effects of climate change was mixed at China's 28th Conference of Parties (COP28).

Progress in reducing the effects of climate change was mixed at China’s 28th Conference of Parties (COP28).


After two weeks of talks involving delegates from nearly 200 nations, the COP28 climate conference in Dubai concluded with an agreement that has been deemed “historic.” The deal urges a shift away from fossil fuels in order to prevent a climate crisis. However, there has been some backlash towards the agreement for its lack of strong language, and there are concerns about China’s unclear stance on climate action.

Zhao Yingmin, vice-minister of ecology and environment, led the delegation from China. Accompanying him were his minister Huang Runqiu, special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua (who is set to retire at the end of December), U.N. undersecretary for general economic and social affairs and incoming special climate envoy Liu Zhenmin, and executive vice-premier Ding Xuexiang. China had the third-largest delegation, after Brazil and the host nation U.A.E. Of the Chinese delegates, only 32 percent were women, compared to the overall COP28 average of 38 percent (47 percent of the U.S. delegation were women).

Carbon Brief summarized the events and activities of China at the summit, which included participation in side events at the country’s pavilion and a sub-summit on methane and non-CO2 greenhouse gases. This demonstrated an increasing level of cooperation between the United States and China on climate issues. However, China did not commit to contributing to the fund for countries most affected by climate change, and media coverage of the fund in China was limited.

China declined to agree to a promise of tripling their renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030, despite jointly issuing the “Sunnylands statement” with the U.S. in November which urged both nations to strive for this target. Li Shuo, who will take on the role of China Climate Hub Director at the Asia Society Policy Institute, cited various factors to clarify why China ultimately did not commit to this pledge.

Beijing is usually hesitant to agree to additional declarations and initiatives during the COP. This hesitation stems from China’s doubt in the effectiveness of these agreements (many of which have ambitious goals but lack successful implementation), and the belief that the UNFCCC, a multilateral decision-making process led by participating countries, should remain the primary platform for decision-making. In the past, some of these side declarations have overlapped with the responsibilities of multiple Chinese ministries, leading to lengthy approval processes that do not align with the fast-paced nature of the COP.

Ironically, China may face difficulties in achieving the goals outlined in the Pledge due to its current leading position. Analysts have high confidence in China’s ability to triple its renewable energy capacity, but there are two important considerations. If the focus is solely on wind and solar energy, China will experience significant growth. However, the potential for further development in hydro and geothermal power, which have traditionally been the largest sources of low-carbon energy, is limited. Additionally, the base year for comparison, which is not specified in the Pledge, is crucial. If China’s wind and solar capacity triples by 2030 based on data from 2022, it is possible to achieve this goal. However, if the base year is set for 2023, it is unlikely to happen due to the significant growth in renewable energy this year. [Source]

According to Lin Zi from China Dialogue, China may face difficulties in achieving improved energy efficiency.

China Dialogue inquired from specialists the reason behind China’s failure to sign despite being at the forefront of renewable energy. The overall response suggests that while tripling their efforts is feasible, doubling them remains a major obstacle. Energy efficiency can be calculated by dividing an economy’s size by its energy consumption. China has been making progress in reducing its energy intensity, or the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of GDP, but achieving a 4% annual reduction until 2030 would be highly difficult. This is due to the fact that China’s economy is still heavily reliant on energy-intensive sectors like heavy industry.

One potential explanation for why China and India, the top and fourth-largest producers of renewable energy respectively, did not agree to the pledge is the inclusion of both tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency as the main goal. According to experts, these countries were cautious about making promises they may not be able to fulfill, knowing that any commitments they make, even if not legally binding, could still result in international pressure. [Source]

China’s reluctance to adhere to the pledge may be attributed to the pledge’s stern language against coal. Despite Xi Jinping’s assurance of not constructing new coal-powered projects overseas, China has been unable to break free from its dependence on coal within its own borders. The Wire China’s Rachel Cheung explained how China’s reliance on coal is hindering the reduction of its carbon emissions.

Although China has implemented a significant number of renewable energy initiatives, there are still challenges with distributing this electricity to homes and businesses due to outdated infrastructure and regulations. Without reforms, coal, which is a major contributor to pollution, will continue to play a significant role in the country’s power production.

China has made significant progress in expanding its energy infrastructure. There are ongoing plans to invest more than 6 trillion yuan ($896 billion) between 2021 and 2025 to modernize its state grid. However, there is still much work to be done in implementing reforms that will incorporate low-carbon energy into the system.

China’s lack of transparency is hindering its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. In preparation for the summit, a report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy focused on China’s climate disclosure regime, which is crucial in directing capital towards companies that support a low-carbon future. The report revealed that large, emissions-intensive Chinese companies have weaker disclosure practices compared to their international counterparts. This is attributed to the unique role of the party-state, which serves as an owner, regulator, and financier and can impose disclosure requirements through regulations, making voluntary disclosures less significant.

During COP28, China strategically sought to gain favor with various nations, particularly those in the Global South, and protect the interests of major oil and gas producers. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, authored by Faris Al-Sulayman and Jon B. Alterman, examines China’s role as a crucial partner in the energy transitions of Gulf states, made possible by the region’s state-controlled economic system.

The energy dynamic between China and the Gulf states has gradually shifted from a primarily transactional trade relationship to one that now involves significant mutual investment in both traditional fossil fuel assets and increasingly in renewable energy assets, which are key components of the Gulf states’ energy transitions. Over the past fifteen years, collaboration in the oil and gas industry has allowed for the development of strong relationships and trust between both sides, which have carried over into the renewable energy sector through the involvement of state-owned companies. China’s dominant position in the supply chain for solar and wind projects has also contributed to this trend. Beyond this pattern of mutual investment in the energy sector, China and its Gulf partners have also begun to collaborate on ventures in other developing markets, indicating a deeper economic relationship and growing convergence of economic and foreign policy priorities. [Source]