The Paris Agreement’s Beijing Problem

A girl makes her way to her house located next to the cooling towers of coal-fired power plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, in 2015. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
China’s green-energy pledges and promises are cover for its ever-expanding global network of coal-fired power plants.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n November 4 — the day after the 2020 election — the United States will officially exit the Paris climate agreement, fulfilling the vow President Trump made in 2017 and finalized last year. If a new president replaces Trump in January, the Paris agreement’s advocates will urge that the country rejoin immediately. The international agreement, its advocates assert, gives humanity its best chance to limit global temperature rise to manageable levels. But their hopes rest on the dubious expectation that China will comply with the steep emissions reductions the agreement demands.

Though the Western world drove the hydrocarbon-fueled industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries, with the United States at the forefront, it is now China that emits the world’s greatest volume of greenhouse gases. The U.S. emits 10 percent less than it did in 2005, but China has more than made up the difference, increasing its emissions from about 5 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2005 to more than 10 billion in the most recent statistical year. China now emits nearly twice as much as the U.S., generating 30 percent of the global total. Suffice it to say, the agreement’s success or failure hinges on whether China will sharply curtail its emitting behaviors.

China’s Paris Commitment
From the perspective of the climate hawks, China’s commitment to the Paris agreement leaves much to be desired. China has pledged to begin reducing its emissions in 2030 and to generate 20 percent of its energy from non-hydrocarbon sources by the same year. It has also pledged to reduce its economy’s “carbon intensity” to 60 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. “Carbon intensity” refers to an emissions-to-GDP ratio — one that naturally will decrease for any economy as it progresses to a more service- and knowledge-oriented framework. Climate Action Tracker has deemed China’s plans “highly insufficient” and hopes that it will further tighten its emissions policies. But policy commitments are one thing, and emissions reductions are another.

There’s good reason to think that China will offer lip service with the former while shirking the latter. China’s actions and its historic approach to international cooperation indicate that a meaningful reduction in emissions from China is unrealistic, thus undermining the Paris agreement’s justification.

Trends Suggest More Emissions on China’s Horizon
Media outlets such as Politico have heaped plaudits on China for its approach to climate policy. One Politico reporter, for instance, praised China’s “climate diplomacy,” writing that “while the U.S. pulls back, China is taking its seat at the leadership table.” In the same vein, scholars from the Center for American Progress averred that “China is indeed going green.” But China’s actions, taken comprehensively, suggest these views are naïve. China’s Paris pledge and its investments in solar and battery technology development conceal an emissions-forward posture.

According to data aggregated by David Sandalow, of the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, China accounts for more than half the world’s coal consumption and generates one-fifth of the global greenhouse-gas emissions total through its use of coal alone; it will use even more in the years to come.

In 2018, China added roughly 30 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity — about 60 power plants’ worth. In fact, China is in the process of building more coal-fired electricity generation capacity than the United States currently has in operation. By 2030 it is expected to have 1,300 gigawatts of coal power available to its grid. The U.S., by comparison, has 229 gigawatts of coal capacity. Though China’s new plants are of the more efficient supercritical and ultra-supercritical varieties, their cumulative emissions profile is enormous. Even if every Chinese plant were to emit 35 percent less than its American counterpart per unit of energy, as coal backers claim is possible, the total effect would still be staggering.

What’s more, China’s emissions-intensive investments do not stop at its borders. Just as crucially, China is constructing and financing hundreds of infrastructure projects and coal-fired power plants in countries across the developing world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through BRI, China has committed to building more than 200 coal-fired power plants in more than 24 countries, ranging from Bangladesh to Serbia to Zimbabwe. The endeavor is an infrastructure expansion such as the world has never seen, requiring gargantuan volumes of steel and concrete, two industrial products as carbon-intense as any. “While China has imposed a cap on coal consumption at home, its coal and energy companies are on a building spree overseas,” Yale Environment 360’s Isabel Hinton wrote last year.

According a 2019 World Bank Group working paper on BRI, “the potential for indirect effects of land‐use change and deforestation from BRI road and rail construction, as described above, could not only profoundly affect forest cover and ecosystem health but also generate a significant impact on the global climate.” These potential impacts are hidden when policy within China’s borders is evaluated in isolation. As Hinton describes, BRI will ensure that China’s partners develop in the carbon-intensive patterns that China itself has pledged to curb.

The Cooperation Mirage
As the global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, China’s party leaders are not reliable narrators. While thousands of people in Wuhan fell ill, the regime silenced doctors and dissenters who sounded the alarm. Now months into the global pandemic, China still resists inquiries into the origins of the virus and prioritizes its fragile beliefs over international cooperation. It has no more trustworthy a record on the environment. To cite one example, despite China’s being a party to the Montreal Protocol on gases that deplete the ozone layer, the Chinese provinces of Shandong and Hebei have been identified as the source of recent spikes in atmospheric concentrations of the refrigerant trichlorofluoromethane. In the journal Nature, researchers reported in 2018 that 7,000 metric tons of trichlorofluoromethane have been released annually since 2013 — three years after the Montreal Protocol phase-outs were to be completed. China assures global monitoring bodies that it will investigate.

In other arenas it’s less tactful. China’s regard for the 1984 Sino–British joint declaration on Hong Kong’s status wears thinner each year. This month’s meeting of China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress has yielded new strictures on Hong Kong under the guise of safeguarding national security that will suffocate any autonomy that remains. Before halftime in the 50-year period of transition from British to Chinese sovereignty, China has reneged on its pledge.

Despite this record, Paris-agreement advocates believe — or at least wish to believe — that China will scale back its industrial activities just as its population has begun to show signs of age and its economic growth has flagged.

The coronavirus crisis has illustrated China’s shrewd cultivation of its image. Mere weeks after suppressing the open dissemination of information on the virus and intimidating concerned doctors who dared to speak publicly, China launched a goodwill campaign delivering PPE to stricken regions abroad and presenting itself as the proverbial adult in the room. The president of Serbia — a Belt and Road partner, it’s worth noting — remarked, during an address to his nation, “I believe in my friend and my brother, Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help. The only country that can help us is China.” Likewise, the WHO itself all but endorsed China’s bungling of the situation, with senior adviser Bruce Aylward saying, “If I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.” One has to doubt that the Chinese citizen-journalists who recently have been detained and Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who warned colleagues about the virus before succumbing to it himself, would share that opinion. Similarly, China has cultivated a climate-conscious façade that Paris-agreement advocates gullibly admire. China’s purported leadership on climate is likely to be a mirage.

An Unreliable Partner
As the world suffers through the coronavirus pandemic, diplomats from Germany, Australia, and the United States are expressing their displeasure with China’s diplomatic attitudes, its opacity, and its self-promotion in the face of a problem of its own exacerbation. Yet simultaneously the Paris advocates urge the U.S. to endorse an international agreement for which China’s openness and honesty would need to be the linchpin. The Paris climate agreement puts too much confidence in a bad-faith regime. Rather than placing a bet on China’s self-restraint, American climate hawks should turn their attention to what we can accomplish here. Sir Roger Scruton argued in his book How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism for a home-based approach rather than an international treaty. “The only answer to global warming,” he wrote, “is action by individual nation-states — those rich enough to conduct research and to act on the scale required, responsible enough to answer to the need to do so, and with a public opinion shaped by open discussion.” While Sir Roger probably put too much stock in the U.S. political process, he’s right that China’s regime has proven itself an unreliable partner. Let us not base our climate strategy on the Paris agreement’s naïve expectations to the contrary.

Jordan McGillis is the deputy director of policy at the Institute for Energy Research.

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