Beijing’s high-level power brokers start steering China towards Xi’s carbon-neutral goal

·6-min read

China has set up a high-powered leading group on carbon neutrality, underscoring the importance Beijing gives the climate issue.

Chaired by Han Zheng, China’s first vice-premier and a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the high-level group tackling peak emissions and carbon neutrality held its first plenary meeting on Wednesday in Beijing, kicking off efforts to turn President Xi Jinping’s 2060 pledge into reality.

China has vowed to reach net-zero emissions by 2060 with emissions peaking no later than 2030. The pledge from the world’s largest carbon emitter last year was welcomed by the international community.

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The world is closely watching China’s actions because of their huge bearing on global efforts to arrest climate change. Climate change is also widely regarded as an icebreaker issue on which the United States and China can work together to reset a volatile but pivotal relationship.

While China has not officially announced who is in the leading group, sitting on the podium at the meeting were some of Xi’s most trusted aides including: Liu He, Xi’s financial and economic brain, a Politburo member and the vice-premier in charge of science and innovation; State Councillor Wang Yong, who is in charge of state-owned enterprises; State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi; and He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planner.

Chiefs of at least 17 ministries attended the meeting, including Finance Minister Liu Kun, Science and Technology Minister Wang Zhigang and Ecology and Environment Minister Huang Runqiu as well as central bank governor Yi Gang.

The importance attached to the leading team suggests how serious the top leadership is about achieving the carbon emission goals and their hopes of coordinating central and regional policies as well as addressing international concerns, according to analysts.

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“The carbon emission peak and neutrality goals are intrinsic requirements of China’s sustainable and high-quality development and an inevitable choice in building the ‘Community of Shared Future for Mankind’,” Han Zheng was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying at the meeting.

“We must ensure that the goals are reached as scheduled,” he said, while urging officials to stay focused and set specific and individualised targets, perform well at a high level and execute action plans at industry, business and local levels.

China has not released an official road map, approaches or solutions to achieve the goals. At the annual session of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on Sunday, academician and researcher Ding Zhongli said that to ensure the quality of the plan, authorities should give scientists time to research and debate and come up with an official road map.

“China’s goals are very ambitious,” Ding said. “China’s per capita carbon emissions were lower when compared with that of major developed countries. It will be more difficult for China to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.”

At the meeting, Han singled out tasks for China’s diplomats. He stressed the importance of enhancing international communication and cooperation on climate issues, finding common ground, letting the world know about China’s commitment, goals, measures and effects and the value of telling China’s stories well and using real examples.

“Foreign affairs is going to play a big part in China’s carbon mission,” said Pang Zhongying, a specialist in international relations at Ocean University of China.

“China is facing mounting international pressure as the world’s largest carbon emitter. It has maintained its stance to share ‘common and differentiated responsibilities’ in addressing climate change.”

China emitted 27 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases in 2019, followed by the US’ 11 per cent and India’s 6.6 per cent, according to a research report by US think tank Rhodium Group.

The country runs 1,058 coal plants and has more than half the world’s coal-fired power-generation capacity. According to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action, China’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) rating is described as “highly insufficient”. NDCs represent the commitments by each country under the Paris Agreement to cut their own national emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.

While addressing the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by the US President Joe Biden in April, Xi reiterated China’s position of taking on “common but differentiated responsibilities” as a developing country.

Chinese regulators have come under fire for failing to properly control the coal power sector, a major source of climate-warming greenhouse gas.

Last year, China’s coal-fired fleet capacity rose by a net 29.8 gigawatts, while the rest of the world made cuts of 17.2GW, according to US think tank Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea).

“China wants to maintain its climate stance, in the meantime, to improve its relations with the US and EU by seeking cooperation opportunities on climate issues,” Pang said. “China has to strike a delicate balance, making it a challenging task for diplomats to communicate with the world.”

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Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, said China was turning to domestic policy setting and coordination before leaders meet for COP26 – a crucial climate change summit in November in Glasgow – to hasten action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“The involvement of the NDRC at such a high level shows China is set to coordinate economic policies and carbon emission targets,” Li said. “It’s long awaited after the emissions hit new highs last year when China was in full gear to boost an economy stagnated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Pollution fell significantly in early 2020 because of coronavirus-related lockdowns. However, according to Crea, by early May levels of concentration of air pollutants – PM2.5, NO2, SO2 and ozone – all returned to or exceeded the monthly levels recorded the previous year. In October, PM2.5 concentrations in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region rose 15.6 per cent on the same month in 2019.

“There has been no signs of emissions abating from heavy industries so far,” Li said. “Hopefully the meeting can kick off real work on the emission cuts.”

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