Why it matters to the world if China delivers on its carbon targets

China's President Xi wants to transform the economy to help the poorest. He also insists the country can cut its carbon output. But can he do both at the same time and hang on to power?

Analysts insist China is on track to meet its COP26 targets despite many strains

A giant screen shows news footage of Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a video summit on climate change earlier this year. Will China be able to meet Xi's targets? (Florence Lo/Reuters)

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It has been well documented, most recently in last week's International Energy Agency report, that the world's governments have failed keeping up with their own climate change promises.

That is why as the globe prepares for the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, starting Oct. 31, analysts are watching whether the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China, is actually on track to meet its own climate objectives. 

It's pledged to have carbon dioxide emissions peak "around 2030" if not earlier, en route to net-zero emissions by 2060. 

Independent analysts I spoke to say it could happen: a combination of central government authority and a national commitment to technological change mean the country could actually succeed.

But with Beijing boosting coal production and juggling a number of challenges at home, that's far from certain. 

Could China stumble?

As the workshop to the world, China cranks out 28 percent of global greenhouse gases and many international analysts see the country's success as crucial to keeping the planet from overheating.

"Amid the growing wave of governments around the world setting targets for reaching net zero emissions, no pledge is as significant as China's," declare the authors of the IEA's roadmap to carbon neutrality in China, although carbon output per person is lower than many other countries, including Canada.

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But some analysts offer scenarios where the Asian giant fails to meet the ambitious targets promised by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Missteps could include a property crash, a domestic economic downturn and an insatiable demand for energy that can only be met by fossil fuels. An outbreak of hostilities over Taiwan likely wouldn't help.

Others question whether Xi, who said last week he won't be attending the Glasgow summit, can simultaneously navigate a recently articulated fight against inequality — his "common prosperity" agenda — at the same time as meeting the country's climate change goals. 

Even as Beijing instructed its banks to stop lending for the construction of international coal powered plants, the country has just announced it is responding to a domestic electricity shortage by upping fossil fuel generating capacity at home.

Rising to a peak

But just as Canada continues to expand its oil sands production, the test for China as a whole is whether national carbon output will reach its promised peak by 2030, which experts say is not necessarily in conflict with current coal-powered increases.

"Carbon peaking means it keeps going up until the peak obviously," said Scott Vaughan, an economist and senior fellow at the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development who specializes in China. "Analysis I've seen is that 80 per cent of those emissions are on track to peak by 2025, so really the next three years, and then you start driving down those emissions."

That is why people worried about whether the country can reach its final carbon neutrality goal in 2060 when it is scheduled to stop generating net greenhouse gases altogether will be independently monitoring its carbon output closely over the next few years using remote sensors. 

Some analysts I spoke to said that the 2030 target for peak carbon output would be relatively attainable, because planners had set the goal in a way that would make it certain not to miss, and that Beijing might use the COP26 conference to announce it would reach that objective even sooner.

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A solar power station in Shaanxi province, part of an attempt to move from coal to renewable energy, where the country already outpaces Canada. (Muyu Xu/REUTERS)

With about 58 per cent of China's energy now coming from coal, Vaughan does not think reaching either goal will be easy partly due to a "risk of social discontent that's actually affecting households or incomes" which Beijing would have to take seriously. 

In the past, China-watchers have warned that a fall in living standards could weaken the Communist Party's grip on power.

Nonetheless, Vaughan said Beijing faces strong domestic pressure to meet or exceed both its targets, pressure which he believes is motivated by a popular backlash against China's previous environmentally destructive development.

Inefficient in carbon intensity

"The challenge is tremendous," said political economist Wei Shen, a British scholar, who along with Canada's Mark Jaccard and many others is already working on next year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. "It is one of the most inefficient economies in the world in terms of carbon intensity."

On the bright side, Shen said, China's top-down system of government has guided dramatic environmental successes in the recent past. He cites the central government's moves to reduce urban air pollution following a red alert and public outcry in 2015, taking it from from horrible to merely bad.

But he said an authoritarian system of government can be a double-edged sword. Beijing's pressure on regional governments to raise GDP at all costs has been blamed for creating overbuilding in the property sector. Pressure on local authorities to reach climate targets may have contributed to recent electricity shortages.

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There are fears Xi's latest common prosperity policy, where a regulatory storm has included a crackdown on corporate lending, could have unintended economic consequences.

In terms of carbon output, said Shen, who formerly worked in development finance in China, the country is divided into two distinct parts: poorer provinces like Guizhou and Shanxi that remain heavily dependent on coal for power and jobs, and rich cities like Shenzhen, a worldwide leader in green technology. It is the poorest areas that will likely feel the brunt of climate change policy.

Saving the world with technology

China has invested heavily to bring down the global price of wind turbines and solar panels, and Vaughan reminded me that renewables already generate about 30 per cent of China's power, more than the U.S. or Canada. Shen says there are more innovations in the pipeline.

"I think the Chinese deeply believe in technology," said Shen. He said the current view in Beijing is that European domination during the previous century was due to China's backward technology. Investing in renewable power, efficiency, clean transport and battery tech is part of a calculated strategy to lead rather than follow.

"They think that technology is the central pillar for solving the problems of climate change," he said. "They deeply believe that technology can save the world."

Shen said some critics want to push China to move its carbon neutral target from 2060 closer to the 2050 goal espoused by countries of the rich world. That may happen eventually, but for now, he thinks that may be misguided.

For an industrial giant of 1.4 billion people with a GDP per person similar to that of Mexico, the most important thing for the world is that Beijing can actually meet the targets it has already set.

"What we need to make sure is that China can deliver," said Shen.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.