Examining the state of the climate and energy policies of the world’s second most populous country.

China. The world’s second largest country by population (recently surpassed by India) and its largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In 2019 alone China emitted more GHGs into the atmosphere than the US, India and the European Union combined —producing almost one third of net global emissions. In the same breath this colossal country was responsible for nearly half of the world’s spending on low-carbon energy technology last year (a cool $546 billion). Like it or not, what happens in China matters, arguably more than anywhere else.

Comfortably the largest producer of GHGs today, historically (1850-2021) China is our world’s second biggest emitter, with a share of 11%, lagging behind the US which can claim 20%. Per capita, however, China is much further down the list, hovering at around 30th (depending on where you get your data), with each Chinese citizen emitting less than half of the average American.

The comparison between net emissions and consumption-based emissions is worth considering for China too. CO2 emissions are typically measured in terms of ‘production’, but China produces a lot of goods for export to other economies. Factor this in, and China’s consumption-based emissions are 14% lower than its domestic production emissions.

The energy transition

In China, coal dominates the energy mix. Coal accounted for 54.7% of China’s energy use in 2021, followed by oil (19.4%) and gas (8.7%). Low carbon energy sources — which include hydropower, nuclear, wind, solar and ‘other renewables’ — accounted for 17.3%.

Last year China’s coal plant approvals reached their highest level since 2015, adding a total of 106 GW of coal power capacity, equivalent to two large coal power plants per week. For context, the coal power capacity now starting construction in China is six times as large as in the rest of the world combined.

At the same time, China is investing heavily in renewable energy. The country’s cumulative installed wind capacity accounted for 39% of the global share and its solar capacity for 36% in 2020. A report published last year by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that China’s share in all key manufacturing stages of solar panels exceeds 80%. While this may be concerning for ‘western’ economies, the report also acknowledges that China’s investment has driven down the costs of PV solar panels, enabling the technology to “become the most affordable electricity generation technology in many parts of the world”.

The Chinese market is leading the way on electric vehicles (EVs) too, with consumers expected to purchase 8 million of them in 2023, up from 6.5 the year before and 3.3 the year before that. That means nearly one quarter of all cars sold in China last year were electric, while seven out of every ten EVs sold globally were sold in China.

Climate policy

China is a party to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. It is also a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement, of which the overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Ahead of COP26 in November 2021, China submitted its updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the long term, non-binding climate action plans that must be submitted every five years under the Paris Agreement.

The NDCs stated China’s intention to peak emissions prior to 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality before 2060. Climate Action Tracker rates China’s updated NDCs as “highly insufficient”, arguing that such a level of ambition globally would put us on track for 3°C of global warming. It should also be noted, however, that NDCs are intentionally designed to be improved upon at each submission.

“In 2019 alone China emitted more GHGs into the atmosphere than the US, India and the European Union combined

Under China’s action plan for carbon dioxide peaking before 2030, its working guidance for carbon dioxide peaking and carbon neutrality, as well as the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP), the following policies can be ascertained:

By 2030, carbon intensity — CO2 emissions per unit of GDP — will decrease by over 65% compared to 2005 levels. Installed solar and wind power capacity will reach 1200 GW in the same period, although analysis by Carbon Brief shows China could be on track to meet this target as soon as 2026. Solar and wind, along with other non-fossil fuels, will make up 25% of primary energy consumption by 2030 under these policies.

China has also pledged to expand its forest coverage to around 25% of total land area, increasing its forest stock volume to 19 billion cubic metres by 2030.

Crucially, China has pledged to “strictly and rationally limit the increase in coal consumption” over the 14th FYP period and begin to “phase it down” in the 15th (starting from 2025).

Exposure to the effects of climate change

China, alongside the Group of 77, a coalition of 134 developing countries within the UN, was instrumental in putting loss and damage on the agenda at last year’s COP27. The question of whether China should receive such funds in retribution for historical emissions is a political one, however it is true that the country is acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Taking sea level rises alone, 64 million people living in coastal regions of China will be flooded by swelling seawaters if average global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius. This number rises to 145 million at four degrees, according to Climate Central. Shanghai, a megacity with a population of nearly 30 million people, is one of the most exposed areas in the world to such rises — see for yourself using this interactive map.

To sum up how rising global temperatures will affect the different regions of China succinctly is nigh on impossible; the country is vast and filled with climates of almost every variety. Some areas may suffer little while others greatly, and the effects may be mitigated depending on the economic importance of a region (it is unlikely that the Chinese government will do nothing to save Shanghai, for example, while rural farmers may not be so lucky).

Nevertheless, on the whole China is poised to shoulder a significant burden of the effects of climate change in the coming decades. A report published last month by the Cross Dependency Initiative predicted that over half of the world’s top 50 most at-risk states and provinces in 2050 will be within China’s borders.