The Paris Agreement’s Beijing Problem

China’s green-energy pledges and promises are cover for its ever-expanding global network of coal-fired power plants.

On 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.