June 24, 2021

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China’s risky record on climate

China's risky record on climate


US climate envoy John Kerry is in China ahead of a climate summit next week hosted by US President Joe Biden. As tensions between the two countries remain high on issues ranging from Taiwan to trade to cyber, the Biden administration hopes there is still room for climate cooperation and efforts to reduce emissions.

As part of a special climate series in collaboration with The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Cipher Brief expert Kristin Wood hosts a series of conversations and perspectives on the issue. This week we focus on China’s climate record and why Special Envoy Kerry has his work cut out in Shanghai.

The authors of today’s brief on China’s climate records are Martin Petersen and Mary McMahon.

Martin petersen, Former Acting Executive Director, CIA

Cipher Brief expert Martin Petersen spent 33 years with the CIA, retiring in February 2005 as Deputy Executive Director and Acting Executive Director. Over the course of his agency career, he has led two large analytical units; The Office of East Asian Analysis and the Office of Asia Pacific Latin America Analysis, before becoming Associate Deputy Director of Intelligence for Strategic Plans and Programs, the first Chief Human Resources Officer for the CIA and the Deputy Executive Director.

Mary mcmahon, Former analyst on climate change and global markets, CIA

Mary McMahon is a former CIA analyst for climate change and global energy markets. Ms. McMahon is currently completing her Masters in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, focusing on energy and climate policy.

CLIMA SERIES – The People’s Republic of China is a major contributor to global warming. 28% of all carbon dioxide emissions are produced in China and Beijing is the world’s largest consumer of coal. In fact, China consumed more coal in 2019 than the rest of the world combined. More worrying is that China’s record is unlikely to significantly improve as the world needs it over the next decade, and Beijing’s mix of climate action and inaction will have consequences for the United States.

At the United Nations in September 2020, Secretary-General Xi Jinping announced China’s revised goals of reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, stating that “all countries must fulfill decisive steps to honor [the Paris] Agreement. “While this announcement – China’s first goal of neutrality – encouraged hope in the international community that the lead emitter was preparing for more ambitious climate action, the draft summary of Beijing’s 14th Five-Year Plan released in early March, it disappointed many of those hopes.The Plan is disappointing on the climate action front and indicates that a snail’s pace is moving away from coal.

The PRC under Xi is committed to becoming the largest economy in the world and low-cost energy is a key variable in achieving this. Industry experts predict that fossil fuels will remain China’s main energy source for the next 20 years, accounting for 35% of its primary energy consumption in 2040, barring drastic policy changes. In fact, Beijing has 88 gigawatts of new coal plants under construction now and more than 158 gigawatts in the planning stage – together the coal plants under development have enough capacity to power Germany.


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At the same time, China is facing a number of serious potential consequences due to its energy policies. Air pollution is already a major problem in many Chinese cities. Cases of extreme heat and heavy rains are increasing not only in frequency, but also in the areas that experience them. The summer of 2020 saw record rains and floods, especially in the central Yangtze River basin, where losses in July are estimated to exceed $ 20 billion and have affected over 50 million Chinese. Some experts estimate that if emissions continue to rise, 45 million people will be affected by the extreme heat that will cost as much as $ 1.5 trillion equivalent of GDP by 2050.

Rising global temperatures can also have severe economic consequences for the PRC. Guangzhou, nearby Dongguan and Shanghai are all at risk from rising sea levels, according to climate experts. These cities are vital economic centers for China, and one expert estimates that $ 348 billion of Chinese GDP and over 7.8 million people are in areas threatened by rising sea levels.

While floods pose a major threat to several areas, the water shortage amid rising population, industry and hence demand is also challenging Chinese politicians and will likely be exacerbated by climate change. Northern China, which produces over 35% of its wheat and 60% of its maize, faces the dilemma of hosting about 29% of the Chinese population but having less than 6.5% of the country’s water supply. The research found that the water table in the region has decreased by more than 6 billion tons every year over the past two decades. More generally, about one-fifth of China is considered desert, with an expansion over the past half-century occurring at a rate of nearly 1,300 square miles each year, bringing desertified areas closer to major cities like Beijing.

The impact of Beijing’s energy decisions is not limited to the PRC. Most of Asia’s major rivers, including the Mekong and Brahmaputra, arise in China. These rivers are critical to the economic health of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Water and water security are expected to be a major source of international tension if not conflict in the years to come. India and China are already rivals, and tensions along their border have increased over the past year.

China’s Belt and Road initiative, launched in 2013, includes many infrastructure projects that follow the old Silk Road and would link China and Central Asia to the Middle East and West on a land and sea route. Planned to be completed by 2049, it has important climatic implications as well as economic and political ones. Coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, deforestation along parts of the route, desertification, risks to endangered species, and water and air pollution were all cited by ecologists as major concerns. In 2020, China funded $ 4.6 billion in overseas energy projects, which although a sharp decrease in recent years has still mostly gone to fossil fuel projects.

Xi and the leadership of the PRC recognize the importance of the climate issue in global politics. At 19 of the partyth National Congress in 2017, Xi said that “By taking a leadership position in international cooperation to respond to climate change, China has become an important participant, contributor and torch bearer in the global effort for ecological civilization.”

In light of these words in 2017 and Xi’s announcement in fall 2020, China’s actions have not yet matched Xi’s words. And Beijing’s record for complying with the letter, not to mention the spirit of the agreements, which it signed is not in pounds, as Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong demonstrates. To date, China has devoted more energy to a climate change perspective, such as adopting a national strategy for climate change adaptation in 2013, so it needs to take significant steps to implement it.

China has made efforts to increase its share of cleaner energy, outdated and inefficient industrial plants and protect its carbon-absorbing forests, but it still has major hurdles to tackle to step up its climate actions. And the point is that without an increase in aggressive mitigation actions by China, emissions will continue to rise and exacerbate the global climate crisis, and with it the dangerous threats facing the United States. The US must remain cautious, however, as China continues its clean energy efforts not only at home but abroad, as Beijing’s stated commitment to clean energy development continues to allow it to form partnerships. more strategic around the world, expanding China’s soft power, leadership in the next generation energy space and potentially economic influence.

Read also Why the intelligence community needs a climate change task force exclusively in The Cipher Brief

Learn more, perspectives, and expert-led national security analysis in The Cipher Brief