China has yet to explain how it can reconcile the plans for thousands of highly polluting projects with President Xi Jinping’s pledge to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2060, according to energy and environment experts.
So far, the government has continued to allow investment in coal-fired power plants and energy-intensive infrastructure despite Xi’s recent pledge that China will hit peak emissions by 2030 and become neutral. in carbon in less than four decades.
Xi received international applause for improving China’s climate goals in his video address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 22.
In 2015, China pledged to reach a peak in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “around 2030” under the Paris climate agreements. Last month, Xi extended the deadline to “before 2030” while setting for the first time the goal of eliminating net CO2 emissions by 2060.
But the ambitious goal of net zero, which would require deep restructuring and the near end of coal consumption, was covered in a single sentence with no elaboration or intermediate benchmarks to explain how it would be achieved.
“The one-sentence announcement leaves plenty of room for different readings, the least ambitious being that there is still a decade left to build more fossil fuel infrastructure and increase emissions,” wrote environmental activist Lauri Myllyvirta on the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air website.
Indeed, Xi’s summary action plan can be designed to offer the best of both worlds, offering climate activists hope for long-term carbon solutions while leaving room for an economic stimulus to recover. of the COVID-19 crisis in the short and medium term.
“This is a historic announcement, as China has set an ultimate emissions target,” said Helen Clarkson, CEO of the London-based Climate Group.
“Leaders around the world will be keen to understand the details of how China will progress in carrying out these actions,” Clarkson said, as quoted by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Philip Andrews-Speed, senior researcher at the Institute for Energy Studies at the National University of Singapore, said the government’s “not-so-green payback package” and energy consumption trends appear to be at odds with Xi’s climate goals.
“It is difficult to reconcile this with Xi Jinping’s rhetoric,” Andrews-Speed said.
A cunning plan
This week, a group of leading researchers released a roadmap of proposals, outlining how China could meet the 2060 target. It called for severe emissions reductions mainly after 2030 and a “mitigation scenario. improved “before that date, according to an article on the website of China Dialogue, an independent NGO dedicated to China’s environmental challenges.
But the article warned that the plan is not yet official, adding that “that does not mean that China will immediately accelerate deep decarbonization.”
Details of China’s climate measures could be provided in the government’s 14th five-year plan for 2021-2025, which could be outlined later this month ahead of its scheduled release next March.
Until then, it will be difficult to assess the conflicting effects of Xi’s goals and economic stimulus measures.
“Either his speech was just a pointing to the United States knowing anything can happen in the next 40 years or a ‘smart plan’ is about to be rolled out,” Andrews-Speed said.
“If the latter, the investments currently underway will either be unused and blocked with consequent financial losses, or the measures aimed at pursuing carbon neutrality will have to be more vigorous than they would have been the case if they had been announced in early 2020 “, did he declare.
Michal Meidan, director of the China Energy Program at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said Xi’s climate promises “seem to have taken the national bureaucracy by surprise to some extent.”
“The various provincial and ministerial officials will now have to translate these announcements into concrete policies, and it remains to be seen whether this level of ambition will be visible in the 14th five-year plan, in particular with regard to coal,” Meidan said. .
Last week, international consulting firm Wood Mackenzie Ltd. estimated that achieving the net zero goal would cost China more than US $ 5 trillion (33.5 trillion yuan) in investments for new electrification capacity and carbon capture and storage technology (CSC).
In its annual World Energy Outlook this week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that some countries have already set carbon neutrality targets by 2050 or earlier, in line with the “sustainable development scenario” of the IEA, with the goal of net zero emissions worldwide by 2070.
Countries like Denmark, France, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK have committed to meeting the 2050 or later deadlines by law.
“To achieve net zero emissions, governments, energy companies, investors and citizens must all agree and will all have unprecedented contributions to make,” said the IEA.
Economic recovery a priority
But so far, China’s priority has been economic recovery. The country is increasingly criticized by the international community for its plans to build more coal-fired power plants despite the overcapacity and underutilization of the plants it has already built.
Despite low electricity tariffs and losses, local authorities continued to push coal-fired power projects to spur economic growth and create new jobs.
In July, UN Secretary-General Antnio Guterres denounced the practice during an online forum for students at Tsinghua University.
“It is deeply disturbing that new coal-fired power plants are still planned and financed, even though renewables provide three times more jobs and are now cheaper than coal in most countries,” said Mr Guterres.
A study published in September by UK website carbonbrief.org found that China’s economic recovery plans are likely to have climate impacts that go far beyond the effects of unnecessary coal-fired power plants.
Analysts found a total of 4,348 projects listed in the plans of eight major provinces with a combined value of 19.9 trillion yuan (US $ 2.93 trillion).
Of this total, 6.2 trillion yuan (US $ 913 billion) was allocated for energy and transport. Fossil fuel and railroad projects each account for about a third, or 2.1 trillion yuan (US $ 309 billion), analysts said.
The study found that planned spending for fossil fuel-related projects was three times that of low-carbon projects.
Low-carbon development includes renewable energy projects like solar and wind power, as well as nuclear power, electric vehicles, batteries, and energy storage.
But low-carbon budgets would be eclipsed by spending on high-impact projects in sectors such as petroleum refining, development from coal to chemicals, coal transportation, coal-fired power generation and gas pipelines, according to the study.
In total, 13% of planned spending could be categorized as low-carbon projects, while fossil fuel-related projects account for 35% with an additional 10% going to road construction, he said. .
Factors of infrastructure spending
While the report warns that provincial lists do not guarantee the continuation of projects, Premier Li Keqiang made it clear during a teleconference with Communist Party members in September that the central government will continue its growth promotion policy. cost effective by delegating approval authority to lower levels and reducing paperwork.
The policy of transferring the power to approve new coal-fired power plants to the provinces in 2015 was questioned for a wave of new projects, which the central government then tried to stop.
Xi’s net zero commitment appears to imply that Beijing will eventually have to revisit the local authority issue or drastically change the incentives for local officials. But with 2060 still a long way into the future, it’s unclear whether the 14th Five-Year Plan will lay the groundwork for meaningful change.
The study of provincial plans serves to highlight China’s dependence on carbon-emitting projects as a source of economic growth, regardless of where the approval authority is located.
Conservationists argue that low-carbon investments and renewable energy are reliable sources of new jobs, but the provincial plans are a sign the transition isn’t as easy as flipping a switch.
The Chinese economy has been associated with building infrastructure for expansion, and an analysis last month by Moody’s Investors Service sees little chance of change in the coming years of recovery.
“The Chinese government aims to use infrastructure investments to spur economic growth and has announced a series of stimulus policies that will support infrastructure projects by reducing financing costs, expanding funding channels, and streamlining the fiscal constraints of regional and local governments and public enterprises (SOEs), ”said Ivy Poon, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s.
“While investment in innovative and green infrastructure is a new goal, traditional infrastructure projects, such as major transport and water conservation, will continue to be a key driver of infrastructure spending,” ET Net News reported, citing Moody’s.
Unless the 14th Five-Year Plan points to a clear path for progressing towards net zero emissions, Xi’s pledge for 2060 may turn out to be nothing more than an attempt to expand his influence over China. for decades to come.
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