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china briefing
CHINA POLICY
19 August 2021 15:00

China Briefing, 19 August 2021: Kerry ‘to visit China’ again; Explanation of ‘campaign-style carbon reduction’; Emissions ‘administrators’

Carbon Brief Staff

19.08.2021 | 3:00pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 19 August 2021: Kerry ‘to visit China’ again; Explanation of ‘campaign-style carbon reduction’; Emissions ‘administrators’

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

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Snapshot

John Kerry, US President Biden’s climate envoy, plans to visit China “later this month” for a new round of talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, according to Foreign Policy. Kerry intended to say that “Beijing’s pledge to wait until 2030 to start seriously cutting emissions isn’t nearly enough”, the outlet wrote. Kerry last visited China in April to discuss US-China climate cooperation with Xie.

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Meanwhile, China has provided a formal explanation to its recent instruction of “rectify[ing] campaign-style carbon reduction”. The directive was among a series of climate directives given by the Politburo – China’s top decision-making body – in late July. The term has led to various interpretations from analysts and observers.  

Elsewhere, Beijing’s state media has focused on a new official occupation created to help with the country’s climate action: carbon emissions administrators. One such specialist said that his job involved analysing his company’s “carbon emitting characteristics”, as well as formulating and carrying out “an optimal reduction plan” to help the firm hit its emissions targets.

Key developments

John Kerry ‘to visit China for climate talks with Xie Zhenhua’

WHAT: Foreign Policy reported last Friday that John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, planned to visit China in late August for climate talks. In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Kerry said that he would visit China “in three weeks”. He said that the Biden administration was working with Beijing “very closely right now” on climate change issues. “We will be continuing the conversations we’ve had over the course of the last six months,” he added. 

WHEN: The news came after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of “widespread and rapid” changes to the Earth’s climate in the first part of its sixth assessment report. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A about the report here.) It also came in the run-up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in November in Glasgow. Leaders from 196 countries are due to convene at the climate summit. China’s president Xi Jinping has received a “personal invitation” from UK prime minister Boris Johnson, the Sunday Times previously reported.

WHO: Although Kerry did not specify who he would be meeting with in China in the CNN interview, according to Foreign Policy, he will have “yet another diplomatic arm-wrestling bout” with Xie Zhenhua, China’s special climate envoy. Kerry, 77, and Xie, 71, are both veteran climate negotiators and have formed “a 20-year-old working relationship” while representing their respective states. In February, following reports of Xie’s reappointment as China’s climate envoy, Kerry called Xie a “leader” and “believer”. In April, Kerry became the first senior official from the Biden administration to visit China. He and Xie held closed-door talks for two days at a hotel in Shanghai. The US and China released a joint statement on climate cooperation shortly after their meetings. 

POSSIBLE TOPICS: Kerry told Foreign Policy that he intended to “push Beijing harder, especially in reducing its coal plant exports worldwide” during the trip. He also planned to urge Beijing to bring forward its goal of peaking carbon emissions before 2030, the outlet said. There have been no relevant reports from the Chinese side, but Prof Astrid Nordin from the Lau China Institute of King’s College London told Carbon Brief that Xie – who Kerry is reported to be meeting – would likely want the US to “take on more of the costs of a global shift to cleaner energies”. She said both sides would want to tell audiences, especially those “at home”, that “they are defending their country’s national interests whilst acting responsibly towards the rest of the world”. Dr Janet Xuanli Liao, senior lecturer in energy and climate diplomacy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, told Carbon Brief that “the main objective of the [potential] Kerry-Xie meeting should be to work out a more ambitious target on carbon neutrality and to identify potential areas for future cooperation”.

WHY IT MATTERS: China and the US are both “absolutely key” to humans’ “collective global ability” to tackle climate change, Prof Nordin noted. She said that, although leaders in the two states perceived one another as “strategic rivals”, both countries shared an interest in curbing climate change. Dr Liao said that the close and long-term working relationship between Kerry and Xie “will make [it] easier for them to discuss delicate issues frankly and to seek possible solutions”. She added: “More importantly, by sending the two senior officials on climate change to meet before COP26, Washington and Beijing have indicated their strong political will to address the issue collectively.”

Beijing explains ‘campaign-style carbon reduction’ instruction

WHAT: Beijing has explained a new climate instruction delivered by top officials in their unique vernacular: to “rectify campaign-style ‘carbon reduction’”. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the state macroeconomic planner, said at a press conference on Tuesday that the directive was mainly issued to ensure “no deviation” from the central government’s climate policy. NDRC called for “resolute crackdowns” on three types of “campaign-style” actions. They were setting goals that are “too high” or “unrealistic”, going weak on containing “dual-high” projects – those with “high” energy consumption and “high” emissions – and having a “shaky foundation” for energy-saving and emissions-cutting work. Various media outlets, such as Xinhua, China News Service and Reuters, reported on the press conference. An official transcript can be found here.

WHEN: The order was issued on 30 July by the Politburo during a meeting chaired by President Xi. The meeting also called on the country to “stick to a single game nationwide” and “establish [new rules] before breaking [old ones]”. Moreover, it instructed officials to “resolutely contain the blind development of ‘dual-high’ projects”. Read more about the context of these instructions in this Carbon Brief explainer.

WHO: Meng Wei, a spokesperson for the NDRC, explained the instruction at Tuesday’s press conference. According to the transcript, Meng also said that the NDRC had urged local governments to “suppress and reduce” more than 350 “dual-high” projects from being built or starting operation. The move, according to her, would slash new energy consumption by 270m tonnes of standard coal (Mtce). She named and shamed nine provincial-level regions whose energy intensity had increased instead of falling in the first half of this year. She also criticised 10 provinces for failing to hit their energy-reduction targets between January and June.

HOW: Meng gave examples of how “certain” local authorities, industries or enterprises had carried out “campaign-style ‘carbon reduction’”. However, while listing those cases, she used more Chinese jargon. Prof Alex Wang, the faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment of UCLA School of Law in the US, shared with Carbon Brief his understanding of Meng’s speech. Explaining some phrases used by Meng, Prof Wang said that the NDRC was criticising “unrealistic (脱离实际), one-size-fits-all (一刀切), frenzied (抢头彩) implementation” of the government’s climate policy. He added: “At the same time, [the speech] is emphasising the need to strengthen control of [the ‘dual-high] (“两高”) industries and to improve basic work to control pollution and improve energy efficiency (节能减排).”

WHY IT MATTERS: Meng’s statement came less than two weeks after the IPCC assessment report. Science magazine said the “grim” climate report had triggered calls on China to slash its carbon emissions “sooner”. Prof Wang said that Meng’s message seemed to be that China would remain focused on the 2030 carbon peaking and 2060 “carbon neutrality” goals and that the Politburo’s admonishments did not signal “a weakening of climate commitments”. However, Prof Wang pointed out that Meng’s criticism against excessive regulation remained “a bit vague”. He gave some examples: “Given the urgency of climate action and the recent IPCC report, when exactly are local environmental actions too severe or ‘unrealistic’? What does it mean for environmental goals to ‘exceed development stage’ (超越发展阶段)… The question is whether local officials have more guidance as to what constitutes ‘too much, too little, or just right’.”

Other news

NEW OCCUPATION: On Saturday, People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper, published an interview with a carbon emissions administrator called Wang Jun. Wang is one of the first people in the country to take up the position, which was formally recognised by the national human resources authority in March. The role is a “critical part” of China’s climate action, Dr Shi Xunpeng from the University of Technology Sydney told Carbon Brief. Dr Shi, who has published papers on China’s emission-reduction mechanisms, said that these administrators could provide the manpower to carry out the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the planning of carbon-cutting strategies for companies.

EXTREME WEATHER: The eastern parts of China will bear “higher climate risks” in the future compared to the rest of the country, according to Chao Qingchen, deputy director of the National Climate Centre. Commenting on the IPCC report, Chao told the press on Wednesday that China was expected to witness more intense extreme weather events and higher chances of compound and concurrent extreme events due to increasing climate change. In particular, eastern China – an economically developed and densely populated part of the country – would be a “highly risky” area to extreme precipitation, she noted. National Business Daily and China News Service covered Chao’s remarks. (For more details on compound events, see Carbon Brief’s explainer on what the IPCC report says about extreme weather.)

COAL: China announced plans to build 18 new coal-fired blast furnaces and 43 coal-fired power plant units in the first half of this year, Reuters reported, citing figures from new joint analysis by Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The Daily Telegraph also covered the study. It wrote that “China is building new coal-fired power plants and blast furnaces at a rapid rate despite pledging to slash its carbon emissions to net zero by 2060.” Lauri Myllyvirta, analyst at CREA, explained more findings in his guest post for Carbon Brief.

SOLAR POWER: China has started constructing the ground base of a space solar energy project to achieve its plan to harvest energy from the sun and beam it directly to Earth, the Times reported. The 22,000-square-metre facility is situated in Chongqing and has an initial investment of 100m yuan (£11m), according to the local government. Prof Zhong Yuanchang, who is involved in the project, said the base would be completed by the end of this year and “relevant experiments” would “officially start” next year, China Science Daily reported. Read more about the project in this China Briefing.

FOOD SYSTEM: Making potatoes a staple food could help reduce China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a new study has found. China launched a national strategy in 2015 to promote potatoes as its “fourth staple crop” – after rice, wheat and maize – to ensure sustainable development and food security. It found that a large-scale dietary shift towards potatoes, combined with better growing methods, could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of these staples by up to 25%. Dr Giuliana Viglione, Carbon Brief’s food systems journalist, wrote about the paper.

COP15: The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) will take place in “two phases” in 2021 and 2022 in Kunming, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment confirmed on Wednesday, according to China News Service. The first phase, from 11-15 October, will include the opening ceremony, leaders’ addresses and “high-level” meetings, among other arrangements, the report said. Overseas participants are due to join the phase online. The second phase will be held “offline” in “the first part of 2022” to allow in-person negotiations and discussions, it added.

CARBON MARKET: China’s carbon market has recorded its “first cross-border deal” involving China Certified Emission Reductions (CCERs), Caixin reported. The Chinese financial outlet said that “an institution and an individual from Hong Kong” had bought nearly 10,000 tonnes of CCERs from a solar power project in mainland China. CCERs are a voluntary form of carbon credits. “A carbon credit is a certificate ‘awarded’ by an authority when an activity is deemed to have prevented a real tonne of CO2 or equivalent other greenhouse gas from reaching the atmosphere,” Wai-Shin Chan, head of Climate Change Centre of Excellence and global head of ESG Research at HSBC, told Carbon Brief.

NEV: The production and sales of “new energy” vehicles (NEVs) in China “refreshed record highs” in July, Angus Media reported. Data from the China Automotive Manufacturers Association (CAAM) showed that 284,000 NEVs were produced and 271,000 of them were sold last month, the outlet said. The figures were, respectively, a 171% and 164% increase compared to the same time last year, it added. Xinhua said that Chinese companies made 1,478,000 NEVs from January to July – more than all NEVs produced in 2020 in the country.

Extra reading

New science

Carbon emissions trading scheme, energy efficiency and rebound effect – Evidence from China’s provincial data
Energy Policy

A new paper has found that China’s carbon emissions trading scheme (ETS) can improve participating enterprises’ energy efficiency by driving their technological innovation. The research also found that the scheme’s marketisation level enhanced its promotion of energy efficiency. The authors came to the conclusions after using the difference-in-difference (DID) model – which is commonly used to evaluate policy effects – to assess relevant data of 30 Chinese provinces and cities between 2000 and 2017. The paper’s corresponding author, Chen Zhe from Nanjing University in China, told Carbon Brief that the findings “provide empirical evidence and policy inspiration for China to improve energy efficiency and accelerate the process of energy conservation”.

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