To beat back climate change, the EU must help China – and itself

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Climate projections show that even if Europe and the United States bring their own emissions to zero, catastrophic climate change will not be averted due rising CO2 emissions coming from China and other developing countries. [V.T. Polywoda / Flickr]

In the fight against climate change, the EU must tackle two gigantic tasks: slash its own emissions, and help China do the same, writes Bernard Durand.

Bernard Durand is a former director at the Geology-Geochemistry Division of the French Institute of Petroleum and New Energies, and at the Ecole nationale supérieure de géologie. He is the author of the book Petroleum, natural gas and coal.

The recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made for depressing reading, giving the world just over a decade to get serious about the problem or face disaster.

It seems to have resonated in the EU: on 21 November, politicians and business leaders wrote to the EU’s Commissioner for Climate Action, calling for a more ambitious policy to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The scale of the challenge is vast, and will require Europeans to accelerate their energy transition and embrace alternative sources of power. The EU has plenty of work to do on its own account, with certain governments reluctant to go green, such as heavily coal-dependent Poland.

But even if Brussels somehow manages to cut its emissions to zero, it simply won’t matter – unless the world addresses the catastrophic climate changes emanating from China. Climate projections show that even if Europe and the United States bring their own emissions to zero, catastrophic climate change will not be averted due rising CO2 emissions coming from China and other developing countries.

That’s not to say China hasn’t tried. Beijing has worked hard to limit CO2 emissions, particularly in the electricity sector, where the share of coal-fired generation has fallen from 81 per cent to 67% over the past decade. This is thanks to a growing contribution from renewables like hydro, wind, and solar power, along with nuclear energy and – to a lesser extent – natural gas.

But that’s all the good news there is. While China managed to slightly cut its emissions of anthropogenic CO2 between 2013 and 2016, the country remains the world’s largest producer of carbon emissions, with the trend not reversing anytime soon. The Asian giant is still building coal-fired power plants in large numbers as the country’s economic growth is powering along at a very high rate and is demanding ever more energy.

Unfortunately, most of that energy comes from CO2-producing fossil fuels, which account for 86.4% of China’s primary energy consumption. Demand for oil is skyrocketing, due to a rapidly expanding automobile market.

Oil consumption has surpassed domestic production by a factor of three, a fact that carries strong geopolitical implications since the necessary imports are mostly coming from the Middle East.

What’s more, electric car usage is not growing fast enough to overcome this challenge. Hydroelectricity has hit a plateau due to a lack of suitable sites, as has also been seen in Europe. The contributions from wind, solar and nuclear power are still very low, despite a rapid increase.

Even if renewables were to grow at a quicker pace – which currently seems unlikely – it is doubtful they will make a significant contribution for another 20 years. In the meantime, electricity demand expands at 6-7% a year, driving an absolute increase in fossil fuels and dwarfing the reductions possible from low-carbon electricity sources.

One of the biggest remedial steps Beijing could take is to make good on its promise to clean up China’s highly polluting industrial ecosystem. Particularly the energy-intensive aluminium and steel industries, which have been operating at immense overcapacities for years and consequently are keeping power demand artificially high, are responsible for a large portion of pollution and carbon emissions.

Yet in contrast to its initial promises, China recently took a step backwards when it decided to soften the winter cuts originally mandated from heavy industry. Despite plans to reduce heavy industry production by up to 50%, the Ministry of Environment and Ecology recently granted local governments more leeway in deciding on how much production should be cut depending on the “individual situation” on the ground.

The move was surprising considering that a probe launched by the Ministry itself in October revealed that regional governments had circumvented the implementation of Beijing-mandated anti-pollution efforts. Instead, the probe found the provinces of Henan, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong had merely taken ‘“superficial”, “fake” or “perfunctory” rectifications’ to comply with environmental regulations.

All of this means that the aluminium and steel industry will continue to churn out excess material and thereby keep inefficient coal plants running.

For China, this is an element of a difficult equation it needs to solve in the coming years, and its success in this effort will have global implications: reducing CO2 emissions without impeding growth. A switch from coal to gas in electricity production would have a significant impact, though there will also need to be much faster development of low-carbon energy sources, and electric cars must be encouraged.

In these efforts, foreign capital – including European investment – could be a pivotal factor. Currently, access to certain green sectors is curtailed by Beijing and domestic producers hold an unfair advantage over foreign competition due to generous amounts of state aid they receive.

It’s no wonder that Western companies market share has been decreasing across the board in green sectors. But the government’s bid to protect national companies comes at a cost: it blocks access to cutting edge technology. Therefore, convincing China to allow more access for foreign investors in the country’s green economy would be a good first step.

The EU already maintains a bilateral dialogue with China on tracking the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which was sealed at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (also known as ‘COP21’). The upcoming COP24 in Katowice should be key to the EU’s collective approach to exerting more pressure on the country through a mix of carrots and sticks.

Still, while Europe can help China and others in finding low-carbon solutions to fuel entire economies, it must realise that it has a lot to do itself. The EU is as much a part of the climate change problem as China, with per capita emissions in many European countries being problematic if current climate goals are to be achieved.

The EU’s engagement with Beijing will be more credible – and likely more successful – if member states takes their own advice first.

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