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Barely a month ago, in a landmark speech to the Communist Party congress, President Xi Jinping of China promised that his country would take a “driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.”
But can China really be in the “driving seat” when it is burning so much coal that its carbon emissions are forecast to rise this year?
It may depend on how the country manages a climate agenda laden with contradictions.
For one thing, China, the world’s most populous country and the largest carbon polluter, is well on track to meet the commitments it made under the Paris climate accord — the global agreement designed to curb the worst effects of climate change — which the United States has said it is leaving.
And China didn’t use a United Nations climate conference this week in Bonn, Germany, to promote coal, as the United States did, drawing jeers.
The bar, it turns out, is pretty low.
Energy specialists who follow China said the higher emissions projections, published this week by the Global Carbon Project, were to be expected. After steadily declining over the last three years, they say, China’s industrial emissions are projected to rise this year, reflecting how difficult it is for a country of China’s size and ambition to wean itself from coal.
What they are keenly looking at is the country’s emissions trend over the next couple of years, and whether China steps up its climate ambitions in the face of American retreat.
Experts say China has compelling domestic reasons to get out of coal — eventually. Chinese leaders face acute domestic political pressure to curb air pollution, and so it’s in the government’s interest to phase out coal.
“China’s own domestic air quality interest is very much aligned with its climate commitment,” said Jiang Lin, a China specialist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which conducts research on behalf of the United States Department of Energy. “To reduce air pollution it has to move away from coal. There’s no doubt about that. The question is how fast.”
But getting emissions down is not so straightforward, especially for a country of 1.4 billion people. It can be zig-zaggy, with ups and downs year to year, said Alvin Lin, the Beijing-based climate and energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a research and advocacy group, and China will most certainly have many more ups and downs. He said he considered this year’s projected rise to be an “anomaly,” reflecting an uptick in economic growth, a boom in energy-intensive construction projects and sparse rains to feed hydroelectric plants, the country’s other main source of power.
All in all, he said, China is on the right track.
“In terms of what the government has done to set direction, set targets, set policies, I think they are doing the right thing,” Alvin Lin said from the United Nations climate conference in Bonn. “We would like to see a straight line down in terms of emissions but as long as you set the right policies and you continue to support those, you will see results in the long term, even though year-to-year you might have blips.”
In any event, China’s climate agenda is not so straightforward.
The country is the world’s largest coal consumer. Even as it is phasing out coal plants at home, it is building coal plants abroad as part of an ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, designed to expand Chinese global influence. At the same time, China has embraced renewables: It is the largest producer of electric cars, and it has proposed to set up what would become the world’s largest carbon market.
Li Shuo, of Greenpeace China, said the projected rise in emissions would not affect China’s overall trajectory toward slowing emissions at home and stepping up diplomatically.
“China can continue to play a leading role in the global climate debate, despite this short-term increase of emissions, which is temporary,” he said.
One thing still lost in the fog of global climate negotiations is whether the Chinese leader really wants to be the global leader on climate. In his speech to the Communist Party conclave in October, Mr. Xi took a swipe at the United States by criticizing what he called “self-isolation.” But he said nothing about how his country would step up to fill the gap.
Mr. Xi has said only that China will stick to its pledges. But even if every country meets its Paris pledges, the planet is expected to heat up 3 degrees Celsius or more. That would not be enough to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.