By Anders Corr*
While most countries are fast decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, China’s overall carbon emissions almost tripled between 2000 and 2018. The country now accounts for almost 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, while only numbering 18 percent of the world’s population.
China’s rapid economic growth, averaging about 9.1 percent annually since 2000, according to self-reported figures and based in large part on fossil-fuels, is alone sufficient to push global warming beyond the safe temperature of 2°C within 16 years.
China is disincentivized to limit its own greenhouse gas emissions as 1) its internal economy depends on the burning of cheap energy, and 2) its growing clean energy exports, including solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear, depend on world demand to limit the effects of global warming. China’s authoritarian leadership depends for its survival on compensating its population, which cannot vote, through quick and dirty economic growth.
Fossil-fuel based air and auto transport is skyrocketing in China, even as its emissions standards lag behind Europe’s by about five years. Annual passenger vehicle sales more than doubled in the country from 2009 to almost 25 million units in 2018. Over the same period, China’s air traffic almost tripled to about 612 million passengers.
China is doubling down on building coal-fired power plants. The hard-won environmental gains in declining coal consumption elsewhere are more than lost by China’s growing coal power production capacity. Approximately 148 gigawatts worth of new coal plants are either under construction or planned in the country — almost equal to all of the plants in Europe.
China already has 987 coal stations in operation, compared with 149 in the European Union and 12 in Britain. It has 121 under construction, compared with 37 in India and nine in Japan. China’s expanding coal consumption translates into cheap energy to attract global manufacturing, which powers the country’s economy and stabilizes it politically.
China is the world’s biggest producer, importer and consumer of coal. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal contributed 67 percent of China’s power in 2018, and will increase in the energy mix until it plateaus in 2022.
The IEA expects coal to decrease as a percentage of China’s energy mix to a still hefty 59 percent in 2024. China consumes by far the most coal of any country at nearly 4.4 billion short tons annually, almost five times more than the next largest consumer, the United States.
Chinese citizens are the biggest victims of China’s environmentally irresponsible drive for GDP growth at any cost. Of the world’s 10 most polluted cities, seven are in China. Air pollution caused 17 percent of all deaths in the country in 2012. Yet, China’s citizens cannot vote or speak out to change their autocratic leadership’s deadly environmental policies. Those who do complain are censored, imprisoned or both.
Other countries aren’t blameless. The world’s top coal exporters are Indonesia, Australia, Russia, the United States, Colombia, South Africa, and Canada, in that order. China has a relatively low per capita CO2 emissions rate of 6.4 metric tons compared to Saudi Arabia, Australia, the United States ,and Canada, which are the highest emitters at 15 tons or more per capita.
New vehicle emissions rules that hit China’s car market in July contributed downward pressure on car sales, which slumped 17 percent in April and May. Part of that slump was caused by consumer economic uncertainty from the trade war with the United States.
China, however, is the world’s most aggressive country in terms of increasing its emissions despite the fact that it exceeds the global per capita emissions rate of 5.5 tons (43.1 billion metric tons of global emissions per year, divided by a global population of 7.8 billion people). If China closes the emissions gap with the other biggest emitters for its 1.4 billion people to reach 15 metric tons of CO2 per capita, that would add 21 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere per year.
China would then consume the entire remaining global carbon budget of 335 gigatons of carbon dioxide, blowing past “safe” global warming of 2°C in under 16 years (even if all other countries achieved net zero emissions immediately, which will not happen as the world is scheduled to use up its carbon budget within 8 years assuming 2.5 percent increase in emissions per year). So given that China is already above the average per capita emissions, and rapidly decreasing emissions in any country is politically impossible, China’s drive to increase GDP and with it emissions is the height of environmental irresponsibility.
China’s strategy is a form of environmental brinkmanship that seeks to forcefully revise the economic status quo by risking catastrophic and irreversible global warming, to get a larger carbon budget for itself at other countries’ expense.
A cynical strategy
China’s cynical environmental strategy is working. Other countries are doing more to decrease their warming behaviors, including through strict enforcement of environmental laws. The United States banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosol sprays in 1978, for example, and the international Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed in 1987. China acceded to the protocol in 1991, but failed to enforce the treaty.
A spike in CFCs was detected in 2018 that traced back to illegal CFC-11 used in polyurethane foam manufacturing in China. A study reported in December estimates that 830,000 tons of CFC-11 stored in foam products could add up to 18 years to the timeline to fully recover the ozone layer. That amount of CFCs has an estimated warming effect equivalent to nearly 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
China is reducing subsidies of renewable energy technologies and has not lived up to the past promises it made to its own renewable energy sector. The Finance Ministry has an unpaid backlog of $17.9 billion in promised subsidies to solar and wind projects, as reported in April. China’s National Energy Administration issued draft rules that month that said new and existing solar and wind farms should be curtailed where they cannot produce energy as cheaply as coal. Subsidy-free projects have been phased in since 2019, and all are expected to achieve that status by 2021, which is in effect ignoring the negative environmental externalities of fossil fuels in favor of short-term GDP growth.
China’s aggressive economic growth is fueling its military and political power globally. Paired with the use of that power to make territorial, diplomatic, and economic gains at the expense of other countries, China is creating a sense of global competition. This encourages other countries to in turn prioritize economic growth over environmental sustainability.
China bargained hard leading up to the Paris Agreement of 2016 to keep growing its emissions until at least 2030, even as the United States and Europe pledged immediate and increasingly steep cuts in emissions. Both have decreased their coal-powered electricity production since about 2010, while China’s coal consumption has climbed steeply since 2002.
Given China’s record of violating its treaty promises, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) and the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984), for example, there is no guarantee that after all the hard emissions cuts have been made by the rest of the world, China will follow through on any promises to cut emissions after 2030. China’s military and diplomatic strategies are to accrue power at the expense of other nations, and its economic and environmental policies seem to be little different. As the rest of the world works hard to decrease emissions (at the cost of maximizing their economic power), China is doubling down on quick and dirty economic growth.
Global warming is big business for China
China is the biggest current cause of global warming, and it will profit handsomely and perversely by global attempts to limit that warming through clean energy manufactures imported from China. China’s green energy industry is exporting tens of billions of dollars annually, and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs to stabilize its autocratic regime. China’s green energy exports are particularly increasing to Belt and Road Initiative countries, which it seeks to draw into near mercantilistic relationships.
For example, China manufactures approximately two-thirds of the solar cells installed globally. In 2019, China’s solar component exports are expected to reach $20 billion, 25 percent greater than in 2018. China’s solar export sales to Europe accounted for 34.9 percent of the country’s total solar exports in the first three quarters of 2019.
Global warming is clearly big business for China.
China’s perverse incentive to increase emissions
By encouraging new emissions-heavy industries like coal power plants at home, China simultaneously expands its domestic economy while forcing the world towards the need to buy clean energy solutions like solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power plants, all of which China is ready to provide for a fee.
It’s as if China is repeatedly stabbing the global environment in the back, then selling the world the bandages required for a cure. It’s a perverse relationship, and China’s incentive to continue polluting should be removed. To do so, we need to stop buying our green energy technology from China, and look to other more environmentally responsible countries to reward with our green imports. Once China reduces its emissions to the global per capita level, and democratizes, we should think about buying from China once again.
It’s China’s lack of democracy that arguably allows its leaders to adopt such globally irresponsible environmental policies.
Import bans and tariffs on China’s green technology are one way to incentivize the country to rapidly reverse its emissions growth and join the world in striving hard to reduce greenhouse gases. Tariffs in the United States, for example, have decreased China’s solar imports to just 0.2 percent of the total in the first three quarters of 2019. This will help solar companies from other countries rebound from years of decline due to competition from China.
Other countries could do the same, aiming import bans and tariffs at China that simultaneously reward those countries, especially democracies, that are doing the best to curb their own emissions.
We need to buy clean energy not from China in the future, but from those countries that are leaders in responsible participative governance and clean energy themselves. Meanwhile, we should boycott, tariff, and outright ban purchases of solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear products and services from China. Only this will fully incentivize China to join the democratic community of nations in rapidly decreasing pollution.
*Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.