Summer 2022 was hot! On June 25, the temperature in Hebei province reached 111.6°, breaking an all-time record. A few weeks later, the temperature in Shanghai hit 105.6°, the highest ever recorded there. On July 19, weather stations in the United Kingdom recorded temperatures above 104° for the first time in history; in the United States, at least 43 locations broke or tied their records for the hottest July ever. The temperature in western Iran reached 128.5° on August 9, the highest August temperature ever recorded in Asia. Increasingly severe and frequent storms, droughts, and floods lie ahead, and seas are rising. As the world’s leading emitter of heat-trapping gases by a wide margin, there is no solution to climate change without China.
In an interview conducted on January 17, 2023, Guide to China’s Climate Policy 2022 co-authors David Sandalow and Edmund Downie discuss China’s role in facing the global challenge presented by climate change with Angel Hsu.
ERICA QUACH: My name is Erica Quach, and I’m a senior program officer at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I am thrilled to introduce our speakers and moderator for today’s conversation on the recent book, The Guide to China’s Climate Policy 2022.
David Sandalow is the inaugural fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy and co-director of the Energy and Environment Concentration at Columbia University. He is both a National Committee board member, as well as co-head of the Committee’s Track II dialogue on climate finance.
Also with us today is Ned Downie, a doctoral candidate in the Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Program at the Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs. He is an alumna of the National Committee Student Leaders Exchange Program, and notably the first one to speak as a Committee author.
Moderating the interview is Angel Hsu, assistant professor of public policy and the environment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is also a fellow of the Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program. And with that, I turn it over to Angel.
ANGEL HSU: Thanks so much, Erica. And thanks so much to David and Ned for joining me here today. David, I’ve been a huge fan of this Guide to Chinese Climate Policy. I feel like I always assign it as reading in my China energy and environmental sustainability class. And so, it’s really great to see that you’ve updated it. So, I’ll just dive right in.
And this first question is for David. So, the previous version was, of course, published in 2019, and since that time, the world has undergone dramatic changes, notably the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic tailspin that really set a lot of countries to rethink their climate change efforts, including China. So, I was wondering if you could just briefly review how some of these global trends have impacted China’s response to climate change since the last time you published the guide?
DAVID SANDALOW: Well, thanks, Angel. Let me just start by thanking the National Committee, thinking, Erica, and thanking you. And right back at you. I’m a fan of your work as well. So, it’s great to be here together in a National Committee webinar.
Let me just start with some basics for those who don’t know about this issue. Last year, China’s greenhouse gas emissions exceeded those of the United States, Europe and Japan combined. Almost 30% of greenhouse gas emissions globally came from China. So, there is no solution to climate change without China. And that’s really one of the core motivations for writing this book. But the goal is to provide an authoritative and reliable source of information about Chinese emissions and related Chinese policies.
And as you said, the last edition was in 2019. We did an edition this year that Ned and I, along with some really talented coauthors, and a fair number of things have changed. Just to tick off some quickly, there’ve been some major announcements by Chinese leadership on climate policy. President Xi Jinping announced in 2020 that China would seek to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and that is—that implies a major transformation in China’s economy and energy system and is a big and ambitious goal. President Xi announced a year later that China would stop building coal fired power plants abroad, which is also a major policy announcement.
But then I would say Chinese climate policy remains a study in contrasts. And we’ll talk more about this and I’ll get into details, but on the one hand, in China, there’s more renewable power than in any other country. And China has led the world in new renewable power for many years—almost half of the electric vehicles in the world are in China and many other clean energy commitments. But China also uses more coal than the rest of the world combined. And that can be thought of as the exception that swallows up the rule, because as a result of that and some other factors, Chinese emissions have been rising, not falling.
HSU: I want to go back to one of the big policies that you mentioned that have been announced since the last time you did the guide, and today, which was the 2020 announcement of China’s carbon neutrality target. And since then, China has announced this 1+N framework, with 1 being this overall neutrality and the 2030 peaking target, and then the N of course being the sector specific plans to help China actually meet those overarching goals.
So, I was wondering, Ned, if you can walk us through some of the key themes in these official policies and documents for China that you mentioned in this book and help us unpack how they’re actually going to help China achieve these ambitious peaking and neutrality goals.
EDMUND (NED) DOWNIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think as you mentioned, and I’ll say first by the way, thank you to the Committee for facilitating this and bringing us to this series of talks, the Committee—through its Student Leaders Exchange program—is which is why I work on China. That’s not an exaggeration. So, it’s really wonderful to be able to give back in this way.
So we bring up eight documents. As you mentioned, most of these are from the past two years from the sets of policy developments that David has alluded to. Some of these are international audiences, but really the most important ones are the domestic policies. This 1+N framework that you mentioned, it sets an overarching policy implementation framework for China on climate and then also includes some more detailed plans and sectoral policies about implementing them, all going towards this “30/60”—that is, peaking before 2030 emissions neutrality by 2060.
So, and they give a sense of the overall priorities. I’d say really the thing that stands out for me and I think for us as a group is the way in which it highlights how climate is a whole economy effort. That’s not unique to China necessarily, but it really comes through quite strongly in this high-level policy framework, and that comes with a lot of opportunities, and that comes with a lot of challenges as well.
So those opportunities are opportunities like scaling and investing in industries of the future, especially clean energy or improvements in energy efficiency, especially turning climate into an engine for economic growth in service of a broader transformation of the Chinese economy. Or it’s what Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders have called high quality development. On the other hand, there challenges like trying to balance climate policy with other policy priorities that matter for the economy—things like energy security, which is a concern that’s been particularly strongly felt over the past year or so with power shortages in the fall of 2021 and the summer of 2022, or other kinds of goals that need to be traded off, employment, things like that with the climate transition. So that I think is really a useful framing to take into this discussion that climate is a whole of economy effort and that creates opportunities and challenges as well.
HSU: Yeah, and Ned, you mentioned China’s incredible transformation over the last few decades since the opening and reform period of the late 1970s and into the 1980s. And I think people forget that actually China’s efforts on climate and energy are actually quite new. And the fact that they’ve been able to put in so many policies in that short time is nothing short of remarkable.
And so going back to your book, in the first section, it provides this historical account of emissions in China and China’s climate change policies. And there’s a fact in there that I just wanted to highlight and have you react to. I mean, it talks about how on a per capita basis, 40 years ago, China’s emissions were actually less than North Korea’s per capita emissions today, and they’re still only about half of the United States per capita emissions. So, I think that really helps to put China’s climate efforts in context. And people often don’t understand that. So, I was wondering if you could speak to what else in China’s history do you see as potentially affecting its response to climate change now?
DOWNIE: Yeah. So, this is huge. And this difference between—this gets at an important theme in Chinese climate diplomacy, which is about this tension between the fact that China is the world’s largest emitter today, but it is also a developing country, and it has become the world’s largest emitter, only really over the past decade or so. And if you go back 40 years, it was a very, very different kind of picture. Chinese emissions have grown fivefold between the early 1980s and today, so that’s over 40 years. And so, as a result, if you look from a cumulative emissions perspective, China responds, it’s only the third biggest emitter overall. And cumulative is what matters for warming, right? Carbon dioxide put into the air 50 years ago makes the same warming difference as carbon dioxide put into the air today.
And so, what that means for Chinese policy, as always, is two things. One, as you alluded to, a lot of these efforts are new and there is a very, very steep learning curve. As steep as the learning curve is for the world on climate related issues, it can be even steeper for Chinese policymakers, Chinese enterprises, because they’re trying to balance climate against so many other rapidly changing things in the Chinese economy. And that comes up in data quality issues and standards, all sorts of things like that.
The second thing, though, that I’d say is that it underscores this principle that China has in international climate diplomacy and has had for a long time of common but differentiated responsibilities. What that means is China recognizes that all countries have a responsibility to confront climate change, but developing countries and developed countries might have different degrees of responsibility in that process. And so now, obviously, China is unique as a developing country in being as large of an emitter as it is, but it is an important frame for how China does international climate diplomacy that from a cumulative perspective, it is not the equal of the U.S. or the EU at this point at least, nor is it wealthy is either of those countries. And that should shape the kinds of expectations that the world has of China in its participation.
HSU: Yeah, And I think that helps to explain why China is always so deferential and they demure whenever anybody says, oh, does this mean that you’re going to be now the leader on climate change? I mean, they still have that framing of common but differentiated responsibilities and this per capita emissions picture in mind.
But I think that there are certain recent events with climate change that have forced China in some ways to rethink that position. And so certainly last summer there were record heat waves broken across China in what was called China’s worst heat wave in recorded history since they began taking these kinds of measurements. And, of course, the heat wave, Ned, as you mentioned, affected China’s hydropower, which, as you both mentioned in the book, is a major source of electricity in southern provinces.
So, David, I want to know if you could please talk about that one particular event and China’s vulnerability to climate change more broadly, and whether or not that’s also shaped its approach to addressing climate change and pursuing clean energy.
SANDALOW: I think it has, Angel. And China is acutely vulnerable to climate change. One particular impact of climate change, sea level rise, poses extraordinary threats to China. You know, the east coast of China is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. There are about 150 million people who live within low-lying regions of China along the east coast that is very vulnerable to sea level rise. And there are some extraordinary projections and pictures that have been done looking at Shanghai and other cities and what sea level rise is likely to occur in the decades ahead. And it’s going to be enormous expenditures required for seawalls and pumping and other hydrological equipment to protect the coast of China from what may well happen.
And of course, sea level rise is just one impact. You mentioned the heat wave this summer, and in fact, a number of meteorologists at the end of August, beginning of September last year, were writing that that the heat wave that China had just experienced was not just the worst heat wave in Chinese history, but the worst heat wave in the world history, worse than anything that had been captured since records were started about 150 years ago.
And we were writing this book at the time, and so I wrote one of these meteorologists and asked, you know, what do you mean by that? Because certainly the Sahara Desert has been hotter than China. And he responded and he said, well, to a meteorologist, a heat wave is not just the high temperature. It’s the difference between normal temperatures and what the temperature is measured. And he said by that standard, he said there’s never been a heat wave close to what China just experienced in the summer of 2022. And it was accompanied by extreme drought. It was accompanied, as you just mentioned, by hydropower shutdowns that affected Chongqing and Shanghai and other cities. And the list goes on in terms of vulnerability, China’s food supply is certainly vulnerable to climate change.
And one thing that that I’ve seen kind of talking to Chinese policymakers over the years, it’s an interesting contrast to our country, the United States: there are no known climate deniers in China. That’s not really a factor. I mean, I think we can talk about the level of priority that that topic receives and often it’s not the highest priority, certainly. But there’s an acceptance that, of course, climate change science is real and that the topic needs to be addressed.
HSU: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s an important fact to keep in mind. I taught in Asia for many years and yeah, it was always a different conversation about climate change, and students would always ask me, well, what is it like in the United States with so many people denying the basic facts about climate change?
So I want to turn to the second part of the book, which is on China’s domestic policies. And Ned, a big part of China’s climate and energy policy story has been its success in developing a native clean energy and renewable industry in just a few decades, where it previously had no competitive advantage. And China has now been single-handedly responsible for lowering prices for these technologies, wind, solar, hydropower, globally, and making them cost competitive and lower cost on a levelized cost of energy basis for many countries. So I was wondering if you can discuss some of these trends in China’s renewable energy policies that led it to this global position of dominance in a lot of these markets and help China to really get to this point?
DOWNIE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, [let’s] put some numbers here. More than three times the capacity of any other country in China in terms of renewable energy—43% of additional installed renewable capacity additions globally in 2021—were in China. So this is the scale of leadership in the sector of deployment of these and [it] reflects the strength in manufacturing that you described.
And I think an important thing to understand is that this is not an accident. That was a product of concerted decisions. That’s a long term embrace of hydropower, that it doesn’t have anything to climb. And it’s been an important part of China’s energy mix for several decades now. But more recently, a strong policy push to capture those renewable energy value chains, especially in solar. So that’s through strong policy supports for deployment, but also for manufacturing as well. So capital supports, advantage, subsidies, things like that.
So those have been matched by steadily increasing targets for deployment of renewables. So the target is 33% of generation from renewable electricity by 2025. So a few major trends to keep in mind as we go forward in this next stage with a lot of the developments of wind and solar, and they can be cost competitive in many ways because of China’s investments in the sector, with that kind of in the background, how is the sector going forward?
A couple of things to highlight here. One is that you have a deepening shift further from the deployments happening because of policy supports towards deployments and renewable energy happening because of cost competitiveness, just purely on an economic basis. The government has historically supported these industries with pretty good subsidies, but they’ve wrapped a lot of those up in the past several years because of fiscal costs on the one hand and also the fact that they’re no longer necessary to incentivize deployment. It’s getting to the point where some of China’s largest energy majors are reducing their holdings of coal power because renewable is that much more profitable, especially in a high coal price environment.
Meanwhile, there are also new areas for growth in renewables deployment. So we’re talking offshore wind, we’re talking distributed solar, which is particularly growing strongly in the past several years, and there’s still some policy support there, particular in poverty alleviation in rural areas. And then also hydropower, which is a traditionally relatively saturated market, a lot of that big dams already been done. There’s this new push for developing a form powder called hydro pump storage, pumped hydro storage, which is more flexible and better suits the grid of the future that’s going to require more flexibility in its power dispatch to balance against renewable resources. So an exciting set of new kinds of resources that we should look to come online as China continues to build out that sector in the next couple of years.
HSU: So you’ve mainly talked about the supply side measures and efforts that China has been making on clean energy and renewables. But I think another part of the picture that is also equally important to tell that you all touch on in the book is the demand side and the gains that China has made on energy efficiency. So of course, a lot of the low hanging fruit has already been picked, reducing reliance on coal, shutting down inefficient factories, particularly in the northeast, switching natural gas for coal in heating. But can you outline some of the other ways that China has continued to improve energy efficiency and what that looks like also going forward?
DOWNIE: Yeah, the gains in energy efficiency can’t be underestimated over the past 20 years. China’s energy consumption in 2018 would have been 20% higher than it is today, thanks to policies that have been implemented earlier—than it was in 2018, excuse me—thanks to policies that were implemented around energy efficiency over the past decade and before that as well. So this reflects—this focus on energy efficiency is one that is really been at the cutting edge of Chinese climate and energy policy over the past 25 years. Climate policy, so to speak, really was energy efficiency policy first and then air quality as well.
And this reflects the fact that China is a very energy intensive economy. By energy intensive, I mean, it takes a lot of energy for each unit of output that generates because it has a very large manufacturing sector, particularly in heavy industry, which is a very energy intensive sector.
And so over the past 25 years, China has introduced a really wide array of particularly energy efficiency standards that have developed significant gains in reduction of energy consumption as well as emissions. So around 60% of Chinese energy use in 2018 was covered by mandatory standards. That’s compared to a third of energy use globally. That gives you a sense of how aggressive Chinese policy has been on energy efficiency, particularly in the industrial sector. So that’s an area of relative strength there.
There is another way of thinking about energy efficiency as a broader way of thinking about how do we efficiently use the assets that we have to provide energy. And so we can talk about this in the power sector. And this is an area where there are sectoral reforms that have maybe been a little bit more challenging story for China in making progress. And we talk about power sector reforms at some length. But to give you just a summary, going forward, the power sector is going to have to be able to balance better with renewables, which have intermittent output. And so that requires a more flexible grid where contracting and dispatch can be done on a more short term and kind of tailored basis. And the market reforms and other dispatch reforms that are required for that are things that have been pursued since around mid-2015 with some hiccups. But there’s been significant progress and something to keep watching going forward.
HSU: Thanks, Ned. And I’m glad you talked about energy intensity, because part of the picture is not just on the manufacturing output, but also the types of energy that China has been using. And so the big elephant in the room is, of course, coal. And so we can’t talk about China’s climate and energy policy without addressing the fact that China’s energy mix is still heavily comprised of and reliant on coal, and the last few years, haven’t necessarily seen the shift that I think the world would have liked to see China make, which is to move away from coal, which Xi Jinping has at least promised in high-level speeches.
So David, can you comment on how that’s going—China’s attempts to remove coal from the energy mix, and what will it actually take for China to reduce its coal consumption in the years ahead?
SANDALOW: It’s going very slowly, unfortunately. China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined, about 54% of global coal consumption last year was in China. And there was steady consumption, really not much increase for most of the second half of the last decade. But then in the past several years, Chinese coal consumption has continued to increase, roughly 5% in 2021, and according to preliminary statistics, about 1% to 2% last year in 2022. And that’s been accompanied by major building of new coal-fired power plant capacity—in 2021, 25 gigawatts of new additional capacity. That’s additions on top of—incremental capacity. And that’s about, you know, about 50 medium-sized coal plants. And it was more than half of the new coal capacity in the world. So it is going slowly.
Under the 14th Five-Year Plan, which is the period that we’re now in, the pledge in Chinese policy documents, is to, quote, “strictly control” the growth of Chinese coal consumption. And then in the next five-year plan, which would be from 2026 to 2030, pledges to start reducing or to peak coal consumption. So far, there not a lot of signs of strict control of coal consumption that we see in the data.
And in terms of what it’s going to take, the answer was a lot of what Ned was just saying, I think power sector reforms and better tools for integrating renewables into the grid I think are going to be really important. Another is, is natural gas and greater use of natural gas, which is something that’s happened and greater investment is probably needed there. That’s been challenging because of the cost of natural gas in the past year. Those are probably two. And then efficiency measures that Ned was discussing as well.
HSU: Yeah, I think I think that’s a more measured outlook on China’s coal. But at least in the numbers that I’ve seen, they have stopped investing in overseas coal fired power plants, at least no new Chinese-built coal-fired power plants have happened in 2021 and 2022 so far. And so I think that’s at least promising.
I know we’re running short of time. So, David, I want to stick with you and just talk about the conclusion of the book, which offers five observations on Chinese climate change policy. And so I was wondering if you could talk about what these observations mean for climate policy, especially your fifth observation, namely that China, like other states, could actually be doing more to achieve their climate goals?
SANDALOW: Well, yeah, we are running short of time, so I’ll just quickly say that, you know, please read the book if you’re interested in what we’re saying. The conclusions offer more details. And by the way, you can get the book on Amazon if you’d like a hard copy or you can download the book for free—just Google “Guide to Chinese Climate Policy Oxford Institute of Energy Studies,” which published the book and you can download it for free and navigate our website.
But in our conclusion, we very briefly say that we believe the pledge to get the carbon neutrality is serious and genuine. However, climate change is definitely not the top priority of Chinese policymakers. We look at ways that this goal aligns with other goals. We have an analysis which may be of interest to some about the role of the state in the Chinese economy and the extent to which it helps or hinders the energy transition. And then we say that China needs to do more, just like all major emitters need to do more for the world to reach our climate goals. We are not remotely on track for the world to avoid dangerous warming. And just in the past year, we’ve seen incredible impacts of warming. We’re going to see much more of those in the decades ahead if China and other major emitters don’t accelerate their action in this area.
And for anybody interested in this topic, we hope that the guide is a useful resource for you. As I said, you can buy it, you can download it for free. And many thanks to you and the National Committee for hosting us here.
HSU: Thank you, David. Can I just ask both of you just to reflect on just one more question, which is, how can the United States and China work together to achieve critical emissions targets to protect the planet from the worst effects of climate change? So I’ll start with Ned, and then David, if you want to wrap up, just your quick thoughts on what’s needed for U.S.-China cooperation on this issue.
DOWNIE: Yeah, I mean, of course, it’s a difficult time for U.S.-China cooperation and it’s pretty well known, there’s a lot of tensions between the two countries right now, and I think in that context, we need to start from a baseline of recognizing our shared interests, that preventing or at least mitigating the worst effects of climate change in both countries around the world is good for both of us. I mean, keeping open, active communication on that front is important.
I think in terms of specific areas where we can identify for cooperation, we want to think about what’s relatively resilient in this climate to some of these tensions between the two countries. So that things like technical cooperation or green finance, around standard setting, that’s things like academic exchange and technical expertise, and areas like food system adaptation and climate and air co-benefits, land use, carbon capture and storage, and that’s keeping open communication again, particularly around international climate summits, to make them as effective as possible.
HSU: Okay. Thank you, David.
SANDALOW: I think Ned said it extremely well, and this can be very challenging. The political tensions between the U.S. and China are at a level where cooperation at any topic, including climate change, is very tough. That’s a problem because this is a global issue and we need to work together in order to solve it, I think. The world looks to the United States and China, and in the past, our two countries have helped to accelerate global momentum on this issue. So I hope that I hope that we can make some progress together in the years ahead on this issue because the world needs it.
HSU: Well, thank you so much, both David and Ned, for sharing your insights today and for writing The Guide to Chinese Climate Policy in 2022. So thank you so much.
SANDALOW: Thank you, Angel.
DOWNIE: Thank you, Angel.
QUACH: Thank you, Angel. Thank you, David and Ned, for this very important conversation. You can also find a link to this book on our interview webpage. Thank you to my colleagues who made this interview possible, and thank you to those who tuned in. Have a great day.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.