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china briefing
29 July 2021 15:45

China Briefing, 29 July 2021: Lessons from deadly flooding; Definition of ‘carbon neutrality’; UK-China nuclear tensions

Carbon Brief Staff

29.07.2021 | 3:45pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 29 July 2021: Lessons from deadly flooding; Definition of ‘carbon neutrality’; UK-China nuclear tensions

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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Devastating floods triggered by “record-breaking” rainfall have so far killed at least 99 people and affected more than 13.9 million in central China’s Henan province, according to state media. The disaster – which came hard on the heels of floods in Germany and heatwave in North America – has sparked discussion worldwide. An expert has told Carbon Brief that global warming has exacerbated extreme weather events, “in particular, heavy rainfall and flooding”. 


Separately, China’s climate envoy has said that the country’s goal of achieving “carbon neutrality” before 2060 refers to the neutralisation of “all greenhouse gases” (GHG), not just carbon dioxide (CO2), local media reported. Carbon Brief understands that this is the first time a Chinese official has publically clarified the scope of the nation’s climate pledge, which was announced by President Xi Jinping last September. 

Elsewhere, two stories involving China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), China’s largest state-owned nuclear company, have attracted widespread attention. The Financial Times reported on Monday that the UK government was considering “remov[ing]” the firm from “all future power projects in the UK” following “chilling in relations” between London and Beijing in recent years. The report triggered a wave of media discussion and further political reactions. It came after CGN’s French partner last week indirectly hinted that CGN should consider closing their jointly owned nuclear plant in China amid an investigation.

Key developments

Deadly Henan flooding sparks global discussion of climate change

WHAT: The rainstorm-induced floods that battered central China’s Henan province last week have dominated the headlines globally. The latest official statistics show that at least 99 people have died as of today and nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced since last week – with 930,300 people still in emergency shelters. The flooding has affected more than 13.9 million residents from 1,616 towns and drenched around one million hectares of farmland, roughly half the size of Wales. Some 198,200 hectares of crops were destroyed completely. The estimation of direct economic loss is more than 90bn yuan (£10bn), a local official said at a press conference. The central government has sent 3bn yuan (£333m) of emergency funds to the province to help with its rebuilding.

WHERE: Torrential rain hit cities and towns across Henan from the middle of this month with its capital, Zhengzhou, being the worst affected, according to the Global Times, a state-run newspaper. National Business Daily said that the extreme weather event – which has been described as happening “once in a thousand years” – saw a year’s worth of rain falling onto Zhengzhou between 17-20 July, triggering severe flooding. Images and video footage showed passengers stuck in an inundated subway carriage, cars submerged in water and a woman saved from raging floods. State broadcaster CCTV said that at least 14 people lost their lives in the subway and six people died in an expressway tunnel in Zhengzhou.

MEDIA REACTION: The disaster – which struck the third most populous province in China – has stirred up discussion about its link to climate change in various media outlets. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said that extreme weather, including Zhengzhou’s flooding, “puts climate change in focus”; while the Los Angeles Times reported that Chinese officials were busy controlling the narrative of the floods, “not on climate change”. Furthermore, the Guardian wrote that some Chinese media outlets and citizens had begun discussing the “role of climate crisis” in the deadly floods. The New York Times analysed how a “climate crisis” is turning subways around the world – including Zhengzhou’s underground transport system, which is not even eight years old – into “flood zones”. In comparison, reports from China’s state media have been less direct. An article syndicated by state newswire Xinhua associated several recent events, such as the North American heatwave and German flooding, with global warming. But it stopped short of saying that the Henan flooding was among those extreme weather events. Jia Xiaolong, deputy director of the National Climate Centre, told China News Service, another state-run newswire, that the flooding is the “direct result” of an “anomalous synergy” of East Asian atmospheric circulation. Jia described the event – alongside the flooding in western Europe – as the “representations of the extreme heavy precipitation events”. He said those events are caused by an unstable climate system “worsened” by global warming.

HOW: Wu Changhua, a climate policy specialist and vice chair of the governing council the of Asia Pacific Water Forum, tells Carbon Brief that a consensus has emerged that the intensifying climate change is “causing rising frequency, intensity, severity and prolonged durations of extreme weather events – in particular, heavy rainfall and flooding – and excessive heatwaves and drought”. She adds: “The trickiest part of climate change is its dramatic disruption of the planet’s water cycle…When [the] temperature rises, the air holds more water vapour…Generally speaking, for 1C of warming, the air holds 7% more water vapour and extreme weather events rise twofold.”

WHY IT MATTERS: One aspect of the flooding that has drawn much attention is the fact that Zhengzhou – home to 12.6 million people – is a modern city with recently built facilities. The South China Morning Post said that two of Zhengzhou’s “smart city” projects – one for flood management and another for tunnel safety – have been singled out for criticism. According to People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party, the city has spent more than 50bn yuan (£5.6bn) turning itself into a so-called “sponge city”. An expert told the outlet that a “sponge city” is designed to absorb, store and filter rainwater before purifying and recycling it. The method is branded as a “new kind of rain management system” that is “flexible” to tackle extreme weather events. But the expert also admitted that a “sponge city” would not be capable of handling the amount of rain that landed on Zhengzhou this time. Wu tells Carbon Brief that the flooding has shown that Zhengzhou’s emergency response system to extreme weather events “did not fully function” and the design of its urban infrastructure “lacks adequate resilience consideration”. Wu says that, although Zhengzhou is a “role model” for being a “sponge city”, “such design’s meteorological modelling is based on historical data”. “An obvious change needed is to look into the future climate change-related extreme weather patterns when designing sponge cities,” she adds.

China’s 2060 ‘carbon neutrality’ goal covers ‘all greenhouse gases’

WHAT: Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change, has said that the country aims to neutralise “all GHGs” before 2060. He noted that China intends to achieve the neutrality of “the emissions of greenhouse gases in all economic sectors, not just CO2”. He specified that China would include non-CO2 GHGs, such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). On peaking carbon emissions, the official said China’s objective is to reach its peak emissions of CO2 – not GHGs – by 2030. Xie’s quotes were reported by the 21st Century Business Herald, which is affiliated with the state-owned Southern Newspaper Media Group. Multiple experts have told Carbon Brief that this is the first time a Chinese official has clarified the scope of its 2060 “carbon neutrality” target to the public.

WHERE: Xie issued the remarks in Beijing during a speech at a finance-management summit on Saturday. His lengthy address touched upon other issues, including the formulation of China’s climate policy framework and the cost of hitting the country’s climate goals. [See details below in “Other News”.] Wang Jun, an emissions policy analyst and commentator, said in a social media post that Xie’s statement on “carbon neutrality” might seem “unnoticeable”, but it confirmed the government’s determination to curb the emissions of “more than 2bn tonnes of non-CO2 gases in China”. Wang tells Carbon Brief that Xie’s words may also “dispel the doubts of various countries” about China’s climate pledges and promote the development of “relevant industries”.

WHO: Xie, a 71-year-old veteran climate negotiator, was appointed to his current role by China’s central government in February, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). Liu Youbin, a spokesperson for the MEE, said Xie’s appointment showed that China “pays close attention” to climate change and “is committed to” strengthening the communication and cooperation with international parties to address the issue. Xie headed China’s UNFCCC climate delegation from 2007 to 2018 and served as the country’s chief negotiator during key climate meetings in Copenhagen and Paris, according to Reuters. In April, Xie met with his US counterpart, John Kerry, in Shanghai. China and the US subsequently released a joint statement pledging cooperation on tackling climate change.

HOW: Xie’s remarks on Saturday were “very important”, says Dr Mi Zhifu from the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction of the University College London. Mi tells Carbon Brief that Xie’s words mark an “enhancement” of China’s emission-reduction targets and signify that the curbing of non-CO2 gases is now a “mandatory objective”. Mi adds: “Before this announcement, people generally thought that China’s ‘carbon neutrality’ target only covered CO2 as China had been using CO2 as the benchmark in its climate goals.” Mi notes that Xie’s speech is “surprising yet expected”, but he says that “China has been focusing on controlling the emissions of non-CO2 gases.” He adds that China formally accepted the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol in June to phase down its HFCs.

WHY IT MATTERS: “From the global perspective, this news brought the world one step closer to achieving the Paris Agreement goals as China intends to take even more rigorous action than previously believed,” Dr Dai Fan, director of California-China Climate Institute, tells Carbon Brief. She says, therefore, Xie’s clarification of them being included in the government’s 2060 goal makes the objective “more ambitious and notable”. Dai adds: “It would imply a strategy that includes more negative emissions technologies such as carbon capture and storage or direct air capture…to decarbonise [difficult] sectors like the industrial sector.” She says that Xie’s speech, however, is “not surprising” as reducing non-CO2 emissions was highlighted as one area of cooperation between the US and China in their joint statement.

Other news

NUCLEAR: The UK government is “exploring ways” to “remove” China’s state-owned CGN from “all future power projects in the UK”, reported the Financial Times, citing “people close to the discussions”. The publication said the move followed “the chilling in relations between London and Beijing in recent years”. The story ignited rounds of media coverage, including articles by Bloomberg, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Yesterday, the Times wrote that the UK government was “facing fresh calls” to review CGN’s involvement in the construction of the £23bn Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset. [Read this Daily Briefing for more.] The news came after Électricité de France (EDF), a largely state-owned French power company, said last Thursday that it would “shut down” a nuclear reactor it co-operates with CGN in China “if the facility were in France”, reported the Financial Times. The facility in question, the Taishan nuclear power plant, is under investigation over potential fuel rod damage. [Read this China Briefing for more details.] 

ENVIRONMENTAL INSPECTION: A Chinese environment official has warned of “very serious” consequences if “dual-high” projects – those with “high” energy consumption and “high” emissions – are allowed to “develop blindly”, Beijing Youth Daily reported. Xu Bijiu made the remarks during a press conference on Monday while giving updates on the latest round of top-level environmental inspection. The Central Ecological and Environmental Inspection team (CEEIT) had probed eight provinces earlier this year and the feedback process was completed between 14 July and 20 July, state-run People’s Daily reported. Hongqiao Liu, Carbon Brief’s China specialist, has explained the importance of this round of inspection in this Twitter thread.

CARBON PLAN: Xie Zhenhua has said that China will “gradually release” a “top-level design plan” for its climate goals. China News Service, a state news agency, reported Xie’s remarks on Saturday. “We are confident to fulfil the announced goals 100%,” Xie was quoted saying. According to the outlet, Xie noted that China’s climate “leaders group” was leading the formulation of a timetable and roadmap to help the nation reach peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. He added that China had pledged to drop its carbon emissions from the maximum level to zero in the space of 30 years, while the same process would take the EU 60 years and the US 45 years, the newswire wrote. 

PRESIDENT XI: China’s President Xi urged officials in Tibet to protect the local environment “well” during his first official visit to the autonomous region, CCTV reported. Xi described the task as an action that could benefit “a thousand autumns” and nourish all beings “under the heavens”, according to the official channel. Among other things, Xi instructed local officials to “improve the governance level on ecological and environmental matters” and “promote the protection of the biodiversity of the Tibetan Plateau”. Xi also directed the officials to “work hard to build” a modernised society where humanity and nature coexist “harmoniously” – the epitome of his ecological civilisation theory.

COAL FINANCE: China did not finance any coal projects via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the first half of 2021, reported Bloomberg, citing new analysis. According to the outlet, this is “the first time” that BRI – a global infrastructure development strategy – has not invested in coal projects since its launch in 2013. The findings were released on Tuesday by the Beijing-based International Institute of Green Finance. Christoph Nedopil, director of the institute, told Bloomberg that he and his team expected even fewer opportunities for coal projects in the BRI in the future. Earlier this month, China Briefing reported on a policy brief, which found that only 13% of the total finance for overseas coal-fired power plants worldwide comes from Chinese public or private funding.

CARBON EMISSIONS: The Ministry of Ecology and Environment has said that it was rolling out a “pilot programme” for assessing CO2 emissions in various provincial-level regions, Reuters reported. According to the official instruction released on Tuesday, the scheme aims to evaluate new projects in “key industries” in the selected regions. The goal is to “basically establish a working mechanism” for assessing the environmental impact by carbon emissions by the end of 2021, the document says. It adds that the programme also intends to “basically understand” those new projects’ carbon emissions levels and emission-reducing “potential” by the end of next June to cut pollution and emissions “from the source”.

ETS: China’s carbon market has seen more than 5.8m tonnes of carbon emission allocations bought and sold through the national emission trading scheme (ETS) since its launch earlier this month, reported Securities Daily. The figure covered the accumulated transactions of the national ETS in the space of nine days, from 16 July when trading began up until yesterday, the outlet said. The cumulative turnover is 293m yuan (£32.5m), it added. An analyst told the publication that the “issuance of carbon emission allowances has not yet been completed” and that some companies “are still getting accustomed to the trading rules”. Another analyst said that China’s carbon price “is low at the moment” but has “relatively big room for increase”. Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A has explained how the national ETS could help China tackle climate change.

Extra reading

New science

The first global carbon dioxide flux map derived from TanSat measurements
Advances in Atmospheric Sciences

A new study has presented the first global carbon flux map and dataset with the help of the Chinese Global Carbon Dioxide Monitoring Scientific Experimental Satellite (TanSat). Launched in 2016, TanSat is China’s first scientific experimental satellite for monitoring the global atmospheric CO2 content. The researchers produced the map and dataset using observations collected by TanSat from May 2017 to April 2018 on how carbon mixes with dry air. Dr Yang Dongxu, a co-author, tells Carbon Brief: “Climate change is becoming a risk to the human community with a shared future, and to be net-zero, we have got to understand the present status of emissions, such as the reduction rate and effect of climate change mitigation.”

Hazard assessment for typhoon-Induced coastal flooding and inundation in Shanghai, China
JGR Oceans

New research has found that the mainland of Shanghai is “well protected” by high-standard seawalls and remains “relatively safe” from coastal flooding under the current climate. However, the megacity – situated on China’s eastern coast and home to more than 22 million people – is expected to be “increasingly at risk” due to future sea level rise, according to the study. By evaluating more than 5,000 model simulations of storms, the researchers also identified three “worst-case” scenarios of storms that would generate “unprecedentedly high flood levels” in Shanghai. Prof Yin Jie from East China Normal University and the lead author of the paper, tells Carbon Brief that one of them is similar to Typhoon In-Fa, which landed near Shanghai twice over the weekend. Prof Yin adds that it is “essential” to conduct “such detailed studies” elsewhere for developing sustainable flood resilience plans.

Quantifying stranded assets of the coal-fired power in China under the Paris Agreement target
Climate Policy

A new study has shown that China will incur a “sizeable yet manageable” stranded asset loss of $55bn (£39bn) from 2020 to 2045 if its coal capacity stabilises between 2020 and 2030. However, a continued increase of coal-fired capacity – of another 200-400 gigawatts – would “significantly enlarge” the loss by “2.7 to 7.2 times”, according to the study. The researchers outlined the pathway of China’s coal-fired power capacity under a global 2C warming scenario before identifying those stranded coal-fired power plants with a “bottom-up” perspective. Prof Yuan Jiahai from North China Electric Power University, a co-author of the paper, tells Carbon Brief: “If new coal power plants continue to be installed, the risk and loss of stranded high-carbon assets will grow exponentially.” But Chinese policymakers also face “no viable solution” to ensure resource adequacy without adding new coal power due to a “strong demand growth” in the next five years, Prof Yuan says. Therefore, decision-makers must balance between power supply security and low-carbon transition for future coal capacity, he adds.

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