Paris climate summit: Will China be seen as a leader or a villain?

China is dramatically increasing its share of renewable energy sources. But whether renewables will meet the 2030 targets is questionable.

Smoke rises from chimneys on a hazy day in Dezhou, Shandong province, China, in this March 12, 2014 file photo.

When world leaders gather in Paris later this month at the United Nations climate change summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be seen as a villain. He, on the other hand, wants to convince the world that China is mending its carbon-heavy ways.

The case against President Xi is simple: China is easily the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and has always refused to set itself any firm targets for a cap on emissions, let alone a reduction.

On the other hand, China is by far the biggest investor in renewable energy sources and is moving faster than any other nation to transform its economy to take advantage of this. “China has taken an undisputed leadership” in the development of renewable energy, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told reporters at a recent event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington D.C.

Few scientists or environmental advocates pretend that China is trying to reduce its giant carbon footprint out of a desire to save the world. As Chinese citizens choking on industrial smog know, their government’s traditional model of economic growth – one that has helped poison the country’s air, soil, and water – is no longer sustainable.

“Active response to climate change is essential to China’s sustainable development,” China's Premier Li Keqiang told a meeting last summer of the government’s energy conservation task force. Currently a “green economy” is one of the pillars of the government’s next Five Year Plan.

Why? “Because they are listening to their citizens, who would actually like to breathe air without having a negative impact on their lungs,” suggested Ms. Figueres in an interview last month with CBS.

Key pledge

A lot of what the authorities have to do to clean up the air, such as increase energy efficiency and boost the use of renewable energy sources, will also help Beijing meet its goal of peaking its CO2 emissions “around 2030” at the latest.

That is one key pledge China has made going into the climate change summit in Paris, known as COP21. The meeting of world leaders aims at a universally binding agreement to curb greenhouse gases enough to hold global warming below two degrees C. by the end of this century.

Beijing has promised to increase the share of renewable energy sources to 20 percent of China’s primary energy mix by 2030, to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent, and to boost forestation.

Those goals, even if met, won’t be enough to hold global warming below two degrees, says Li Shuo, a climate change expert with Greenpeace in Beijing. Rather, the goals should be “a floor, the starting point, not the finish line.”

But Chinese negotiators are unlikely to improve the offer they have made in Beijing’s "Intended Nationally Determined Contribution" (INDC) – the pledge that each country has made to COP21, setting out its carbon-curbing intentions.

“The Chinese never commit more internationally than they have committed to themselves,” adds Deborah Seligsohn, a longtime observer of China’s climate policies now at the University of California, San Diego.

“What they have presented is what they calculate they will actually do,” says Yoke Ling Chee, co-director of the Third World Network of development activist groups. “They are pretty serious.”

Indeed, what China has promised in its INDC is no more nor less than the targets the government had already set itself.

A desire to meet international expectations has an influence on Chinese policies and goals, says Greenpeace’s Mr. Li, “but the bedrock of China’s climate incentives are domestic considerations such as air pollution and restructuring the economy.”

China may not meet targets

Wu Changhua, Greater China director for The Climate Group, an influential international NGO promoting a low carbon future, sees the close match between Beijing’s local and international goals as a good thing.

“China’s commitment to the international process is very well aligned with its domestic agenda,” she says. That is “encouraging” for prospects that Beijing will meet its commitments.

There are doubts however, among some experts, that China will be able to hit its ambitious targets for renewable energy use. Even though the country’s investments in renewables lead the world – accounting for nearly 30 percent of the world’s total renewable investment, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance – it will still be hard pressed to generate a fifth of its energy needs from wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear sources by 2030, says Li.

To do so, China will have to install the equivalent of all the electricity that the United States generates today, just in renewable sources. That will require wind and solar installations at double the current pace, according to Greenpeace calculations.

Though China has plenty of domestic motivation to eventually cut back CO2 emissions, Beijing’s increasing engagement with the international movement to curb climate change is also bearing fruit, observers here say. It was during a summit with US President Barack Obama a year ago that Xi first announced a date – 2030 – for peak CO2 emissions.

And at a meeting earlier this month with French President François Hollande, Xi agreed that Beijing will accept international monitoring of its greenhouse gas emissions – a shift from China’s stance at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

At the same time, Beijing is offering up cash – pledging $3.1 billion to other developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to the effects of global warming. That sum slightly exceeds President Obama’s promise of $3 billion to the intergovernmental Green Climate Fund, a donation that is still awaiting congressional approval.

“The signs are clear that China is going to take more responsibility for climate change issues over the next few years,” says Yang Fuqiang, an adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based international environmental NGO. “Beijing does not want to be a follower, like before; it wants to be a leader.”

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