The Paris Agreement and China’s Climate Leadership

In the midst of its weeklong National Day holiday – also known as Golden Week – China has another reason to celebrate today.  Seventy-two countries, accounting for nearly 57% of global GHG emissions, have now formally joined the Paris climate agreement, meaning it will enter into force in 30 days. As my colleague Jake Schmidt writes, this marks “a global turning point in meeting the central environmental challenge of our time.”

China played a key role in getting the Paris Agreement over the finish line. The series of bilateral climate agreements between China and the U.S. – the world’s two largest GHG emitters – set the stage for the Paris negotiations, and also contributed to the extraordinary speed with which the agreement will enter into force.  In addition, China and the U.S. are working together to push for an ambitious global phase-down of the potent heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. China is also playing an active role in negotiations on an agreement to work towards “carbon neutral growth” in aviation emissions post-2020.

Some members of the U.S. Congress continue to claim that China will not follow through on its Paris climate pledges, which include the following four goals for 2030:

  1. peak carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and make best efforts to peak early,
  2. lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 level,
  3. increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix to around 20 percent, and
  4. increase forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels.

Yet China is already moving ahead with a comprehensive set of measures that have put it on a path to peak its CO2 emissions much earlier and at a lower level than anyone had anticipated. In fact, China’s coal consumption has fallen for the past two years and may already have peaked in 2013:

China’s Coal Consumption

It's official: China continued to reduce its coal consumption in 2015 while growing its clean energy

Alvin Lin, 2016

In contrast, renewable energy in China is booming. China invested $102.9 billion in renewable energy in 2015, more than the U.S. and the European Union combined. Half of all wind power capacity and almost one-third of all solar PV capacity installed globally last year was in China.  China is installing one wind turbine an hour, and is building the world’s largest solar farm, which will include 6 million panels and cover more than 7,000 U.S east coast city blocks.

Not all of this renewable energy is being used. In 2015, 15 percent of China's wind energy and 9 percent of its solar energy was "curtailed," meaning that, for a variety of reasons, wind and solar energy production had to shut down because the electricity grid was not able to absorb the power that would have been generated. Yet, despite these challenges, power generation from wind and solar increased more than China’s total electricity demand in 2015.

In addition, as NRDC President Rhea Suh noted, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, investing more than $500 billion to build some 12,000 miles of high-speed railroad connecting nearly every city in the country with a population of half a million or more. It plans to put three million electric cars on the road by 2025. And with 100 million rural residents planning to move into cities in the next five years – part of the largest and fastest urban expansion in history – China has adopted a series of ambitious targets for low-carbon urbanization.

Despite today’s historic news, much more still needs to be done, and time is of the essence. The evidence continues to mount that China is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which is threatening the country’s food security, human health, even its infrastructure networks. We look forward to continued leadership from China on every front of the global battle against climate change.

About the Authors

Barbara Finamore

Senior Strategic Director, Asia

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