China’s power shift: from coal to renewables?

Last month China shocked the global community with the pledge of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. President Xi Jinping’s address to the UN revealed that (if successful) the country’s C02 emissions will peak by 2030, only to dramatically drop. If implemented correctly, it would place China at the top of the environmental policy podium, with it being the world’s biggest climate commitment to date. This pioneering promise will be the first target out of Beijing that holds any sense of longevity. But it highlights sharp pivot in China’s climate outlook and achieving it will be no mean feat. A 90% reduction in carbon dioxide output will require a total overhaul of not only policy but also societal norms and ways of life – garnering citizen support will be imperative. 

The implementation of this target requires the synchronous working from all aspects of Chinese society. Government focus shifted, social mores and norms re-established, and the entire economic structure reconfigured. At present, the nation still relies heavily on coal as its major fuel source, with it accounting for 58% of the total energy consumption, according to The Economist. At present, the Chinese economy is not structured in such a way that makes this target a possible one. Investments in renewable energy will be paramount to China’s success -an economic revisal seems to be the necessary starting point for the country.

However, these are not even the first issues China faces to ensure policy effectuation; there is a much more immediate concern. China has yet to reveal (and possibly even decide) how they will go about achieving and implementing the target. In the age of state one-upmanship, there is the worry that China is simply clamouring for increased influence and control on the international stage. And that the policy is being a mere façade for hegemony and dominance. Has Beijing simply announced yet another empty promise?

China seems to be going for the dichotomous hat trick: the world’s biggest coal consumer, the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide, and now it appears, the world’s most committed country to environmentalism and climate change. The sudden shift in the nature of this policy compared to their current consumption statistics may have created the wrong impression. There has been no gradual dial back in usage, or even any apparent efforts to think about decreasing it. Before this new target was announced, environmentalism appeared to be at the bottom of the list of Xi’s concerns. There is an almost impulsive atmosphere surrounding it: an ‘announce now, implement later’ strategy. Because of this, it is no wonder that the spear-heading target has been met with, to put it lightly, a fair amount of scepticism from the international community. Perhaps Beijing’s history of failed promises and empty words have caught up with it; their reputation as blackened as their polluted skies.

China holds an incredible amount of power: in a sense, the fate of planet earth rests on Xi’s shoulders. If the policy is successful, China alone has the ability to cool the planet by between 0.2C and 0.3C based on future global warming modelling and projections. The Chinese government needs to make a definitive policy and publish a concrete plan in order to not only tackle the global climate emergency, but to also protect its international reputation and standing. The image of China as being a reliable and accountable nation-state can only help the country in their quest for Sino-centrism: it is to their detriment if they fail to do so.

Perhaps this has all been too pessimistic. If successful, the planet and everything on it faces the prospect of renewed hope. International environmental targets could be met for the first time ever. But what is clear is that the sheer scale of Chinese influence has never been so apparent. The catch-22 means the scope and sphere of this power paradoxically only grows with each day of failing to act.

Image Credit: Don Felix via Flickr


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