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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A government-linked study involving dozens of China’s top academics has projected the country to peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “around 2027” at “about” 12.2bn tonnes (Gt), according to Chinese state TV. The study also found that China “can achieve carbon neutrality before 2060” if it “promotes” a “fundamental change” in its development model on the back of the peaking scenario, state TV reported.
Last Friday, leaders of China and the European Union (EU) discussed a range of issues, including climate change, during a virtual summit. An EU release said that the two sides “agreed to continue cooperation on climate change and energy transition, which is necessary to tackle this urgent global challenge”.
Elsewhere, Haseeb Bakhtary – a consultant at the thinktank Climate Focus – has analysed for Carbon Brief the role that food systems could play in China’s climate action. Bakhtary is a co-author of a recent study that identifies opportunities for incorporating food systems into countries’ nationally determined contributions.
China expected to peak CO2 emissions ‘around 2027’
WHAT: A high-profile study led by the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) has projected that China will peak its CO2 emissions “around 2027” at “about” 12.2Gt of CO2, Beijing’s state broadcaster CCTV reported. The CAE – which is affiliated with the State Council, China’s top administrative agency – released some of the study’s findings at a forum in Beijing last Thursday. More than 40 CAE members, 300-plus other experts and dozens of companies had spent more than a year undertaking the “systematic” study, CCTV noted. The channel did not explain how the projections were made. It is unclear whether or not the researchers have taken into consideration China’s recent efforts to boost coal production, which could directly affect its peaking timeline and CO2 level. (Carbon Brief has analysed China’s coal push.)
WHEN: China’s president Xi Jinping announced in September 2020 that the country would peak its carbon emissions “before 2030” and achieve carbon neutrality “before 2060”. The CAE is “adding to the chorus of researchers who see the country hitting peak emissions early”, Bloomberg reported. But the outlet also pointed out that Beijing “backs an aggressive expansion of fossil fuel output”. (Today, Bloomberg reported that officials in a “key Chinese coal mining hub” have approved a “massive” coal mine which has an annual production capacity of 15m tonnes and an “estimated service life of 96.8 years”.) Last September, Prof Zou Ji – chief executive and president of Energy Foundation China – projected China to peak its CO2 emissions “before 2028” or “even earlier”. Prof Zou said that China’s emissions were entering a “quasi-peaking” plateau period, citing his team’s research.
WHO: The study said that industry currently contributes to 38% of China’s CO2 emissions, while the power system accounts for 33%, according to Beijing News, a newspaper supervised by the Beijing Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party. Prof Li Xiaohong, president of the CAE, was quoted explaining why China’s CO2 emissions are “relatively high”. Prof Li said one of the reasons was that coal is the country’s main source of energy. “Besides, [China’s] energy intensity is about 1.5 times the global average and 2.7 times the average of member countries of the European Union,” he noted, according to Beijing News. The study proposed eight “strategies” for China’s climate action, including one that calls for fossil fuels to meet “basic and emergency” energy demand, the outlet said.
HOW: According to CCTV, the study also found that China “can achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”, assuming that it “promotes” a “fundamental change” in its development model on the basis of achieving the peaking scenario. The study noted that peaking carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality are crucial to China’s “high-quality social and economic growth” – a concept proposed by China’s president Xi Jinping in 2017 – but added that the “dual-carbon” agenda faces “many challenges”. (Carbon Brief’s analysis of the “nine key moments” for China’s climate policymaking has more on the country’s development model.) Prof Du Xiangwan – a member of the CAE and the deputy head of the study group – told CCTV that China “must accomplish a series of technological progressions” in sectors including industry, transport, construction and power to reach its climate goals, especially the carbon neutrality target.
HOW MUCH: Journalist and consultant Liu Hongqiao (formerly of Carbon Brief) tweeted that, despite an “early” peak, the CAE’s projected CO2 peak value is “by far the highest estimated [level] by Chinese experts in recent years”. The CAE’s projections are similar to estimates made by Carbon Brief in 2015. Dr Simon Evans, Carbon Brief’s deputy editor, calculated that China’s CO2 emissions “could peak in 2027 at around 12.7Gt”, if the country could reduce its emissions intensity – the volume of emissions per unit of GDP – by 65% of 2005 levels by 2030, a target in China’s original nationally determined contribution, or NDC. (China has enhanced its emissions intensity target to a “more than 65%” drop from 2005 levels in its updated NDC.) Swithin Lui – China lead at Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an “independent scientific analysis” that assesses governments’ climate action – told Carbon Brief that his team is in the process of updating their projections of China and their provisional results are “well-aligned” with the forecast by the CAE. According to Lui, CAT projects China to peak CO2 emissions “at around 2025 or slightly thereafter” and at levels “compatible with CAE’s estimate of 12.2Gt”.
WHY IT MATTERS: Lui – who is also a climate policy analyst at NewClimate Institute, a non-profit institute focused on climate change – said that, even if the CAE’s projections are realised, China’s CO2 emissions are “still set to rise by around 5%” from the estimated 2021 levels before peaking. Lui noted that this is “in stark contrast” to the action humans need to take from today to 2030, as highlighted by the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Lui pointed out that reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to 43% below 2019 levels by 2030 – which, according to the IPCC report, is required for the world to hit the 1.5C goal – “will not take place without China’s share in rapid decarbonisation”. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on the IPCC report.) Lui said it was “encouraging” to see state-affiliated academics “reiterate” that China can achieve its NDC peaking target “ahead of time”. However, he underlined that China’s NDC targets themselves “are not very ambitious”. He added that if China were to achieve its NDC and carbon neutrality 2060 targets “on time” – and without overachievement – “they would miss all global benchmarks for a 1.5C-compatible pathway”.
EU and China ‘to continue cooperation on climate change’
WHAT: Leaders of the EU and China held their 23rd bilateral summit via video link on 1 April. According to an EU release, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen – president of the European Council and the European Commission, respectively – met with China’s premier Li Keqiang, “followed by exchanges” with China’s president Xi Jinping. The release said that the two sides discussed “Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine”, as well as other issues, including climate change.
EU SIDE: According to the EU release, the two sides “agreed to continue cooperation on climate change and energy transition, which is necessary to tackle this urgent global challenge”. The release said that the EU stressed the importance of “additional measures”, including “phasing down coal”, in the leadup to COP27 – which is scheduled to take place in Egypt’s Sharm-El Sheikh from 7-18 November this year. The release also stated that the two sides would collaborate to secure a “robust and ambitious new global biodiversity framework” at the COP15 – which is set to be held in the “third quarter” this year in the Chinese city of Kunming. Furthermore, the high-level dialogue on environment and climate – a regular meeting initiated during the last EU-China summit in September 2020 – is due to meet “before the summer”, the release added.
CHINA SIDE: According to a Chinese readout, President Xi said that the EU and China need to follow “true multilateralism”, advocate “a vision of global governance” and continue to “spearhead” international cooperation on climate change and biodiversity. It stated that the EU “expressed readiness” to “keep deepening cooperation” with China in fields including climate change and biodiversity protection. The release said that two other senior officials “were present” at the meeting: Yang Jiechi, a senior diplomat specialising in US-China affairs, and He Lifeng, head of China’s state economic planner. Wang Lutong – director-general for European affairs at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – summarised the summit’s outcome from China’s perspective on Twitter. In particular, Wang wrote that the two sides “agreed to conduct dialogue on energy security and food security”.
STATE MEDIA: Over the weekend, China’s state media interviewed two European experts, who stressed the importance of Europe-China climate change cooperation. On Saturday, China’s state news agency Xinhua ran an “exclusive” interview with Prof Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. According to Xinhua, Prof Edenhofer said that it is “essential” for Europe to cooperate with China “on the economics of climate change”. Specifically, Prof Edenhofer expected to see “close cooperation” between the EU and China in carbon pricing, Xinhua said. (See Carbon Brief’s 2015 interview with Edenhofer, when he was an IPCC co-chair.) One day later, People’s Daily – the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party – interviewed Michael Schumann, chair of the German Federal Association for Economic Development and Foreign Trade (BWA). Schumann told the newspaper that Germany and China are “committed to developing renewable energy sources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, setting a new benchmark for Europe-China cooperation in the field of renewable energy”.
VON DER LEYEN: At a post-summit press conference, Ursula von der Leyen said that the two sides “continue to cooperate constructively on climate issues” and “want to build on this to prepare for COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh”. She continued: “The current high prices for fossil fuels are also important to watch because they should not bring us to allow a lock-in in fossil fuels. [They] should, on the contrary, move us forward towards more strategic investment in renewables and investment in a decarbonised economy.”
QUOTES: Belinda Schäpe – a climate diplomacy researcher on EU-China relations at E3G, a climate change thinktank – shared her views on von der Leyen’s remarks with Carbon Brief. Schäpe said that the extent to which the current “crisis” in Ukraine impacts the pace of the EU’s energy transition “will be closely watched” by Chinese policymakers. She added: “Von der Leyen reaffirmed that the current geopolitical shocks are driving Europe to transition faster to clean energy sources and will not change the EU’s climate commitments…If the EU follows through on its commitments, it will be harder for China to defend any backtracking and slowdown in its transition.”
SIGNIFICANCE: Schäpe said this was the first EU-China summit held in nearly two years. While climate change and energy transition “were not a key focus”, the summit “confirmed that they remain a key pillar in the bilateral relations”, she noted. On the EU’s call for China to phase down coal use in the run up to COP27, Schäpe explained that, although China signed up to accelerate the global phase down of coal under the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26, “there is no timeline attached to that commitment”. She said: “By calling on China for action towards accelerating coal phase down ahead of COP27, the EU is still pushing for accelerated action from China by phasing down domestic coal as soon as possible, rather than starting in 2026 as set out in China’s plans, and holding China accountable to its overseas coal pledge.”
How food systems could help China achieve its climate goals
In 2018, the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by China’s food systems amounted to 1.09bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), 8.2% of its total national GHG emissions that year.
The main sources of emissions within food systems come from agricultural inputs, most notably fertiliser use. Additionally, China’s large imports of soybean for animal feed have raised concerns over overseas deforestation, especially in Latin America. Meanwhile, rising temperatures are expected to further add to China’s current struggle for land and water availability. It is estimated that 52.6% of the arable land in China will experience a significant decrease in yield for cultivated crops over the next two decades.
There are several opportunities for addressing these issues through the integration of a food systems approach in China’s nationally determined contribution (NDC).
For example, currently, the NDC focuses predominantly on efficiency improvements for reducing GHG emissions in agriculture. However, there is scope to increase ambition by facilitating the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.
The NDC could draw inspiration from traditional methods in its measures and programmes to promote mixed cropping systems and rice-fish farming, which improve pest control and support more biodiversity. Support could also be provided for organic agriculture and Chinese ecological agriculture. Moreover, measures to reduce food loss and waste and associated emissions could be explicitly included in the NDC as well. Recently, China adopted a law to address food loss and waste. This law and how it can contribute to the country’s climate goals can be included in the NDC.
Furthermore, while the NDC indeed sets the ambition to improve manure management in livestock production as a means to lower GHG emissions, additional and more concrete steps can be taken to develop a sustainable livestock system. Specifically, manure management and efficiency can be improved by supporting and promoting integrated crop and livestock production systems where farmers and manure end-users are provided with better capacity and incentives for adopting such a system.
While the NDC clearly indicates an ambition to pursue domestic conservation efforts as part of its commitment to reach carbon neutrality, it does not explore options to address the issue of deforestation related to imported agriculture and food products. Considering the significant environmental impacts of China’s agricultural and food imports, the issue should not be neglected. One option for addressing imported deforestation could be setting sustainability and environmental criteria in trade regulations, as well as for the public procurement of food.
(Bakhtary is the co-author of a recent report, which analyses how 14 countries, including China, have incorporated food systems into their NDCs. The report is published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, in partnership with Climate Focus and Solidaridad.)
- By the numbers: China’s net-zero ambitions – Andy Tay, Nature
- China targets innovation in sustainable protein – Fan Shenggen, Helena Wright and Eline Reintjes, China Dialogue
- China energy goals a problem as UN report calls for deeper coal cuts – David Stanway, Reuters
- Comment: Go east? Why China’s not going to save Russia’s energy exports anytime soon – Thane Gustafson, Fortune
A new paper has found that the greenhouse gas footprint of Chinese households increased by 37.1% between 1995 and 2019, while their energy footprint rose by “only” 3.3% during the same period. The study also found that imports have played an “increasingly important” role in footprints of Chinese households. The analysis showed that the ratio of “imported emissions” in the overall emissions footprint of Chinese households more than quadrupled, growing from 3% to 14.4%, over the 14 years. At the same time, the proportion of “imported energy” was up from 2% to 11% in their energy footprint. Additionally, the researchers concluded that household consumption related to shelter and food “plays an important role” in generating emissions and energy use by Chinese households.
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