China Briefing 14 December: COP28 special edition


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Carbon Brief handpicks and explains the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past fortnight. Subscribe for free here.

(China Briefing will return on 11 January.)

China at COP28

BIG PRESENCE: China’s presence at COP28 this year loomed large, boasting the joint-third largest delegation with more than 1,400 badges issued, Carbon Brief analysis found.

WHO’S WHO: The delegation, headed by ministry of environment and ecology (MEE) vice-minister Zhao Yingmin, featured many high-ranking government officials, including MEE minister Huang Runqiu, special climate envoy and COP veteran Xie Zhenhua, as well as UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs Liu Zhenmin, who is expected to replace Xie as climate envoy after COP28. 

FULL CALENDAR: China also hosted a jam-packed schedule of side events at its country pavilion, which topics ranging from methane emissions and “green” banking through to overseas energy investments and UK-China cooperation on climate science. Many events were attended by Carbon Brief. “The pavilion is always an interesting place to see what [China] want[s] the world to see about them,” Prof Alex Wang, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells Carbon Brief. “There’s more information available, there’s more societal involvement than ever before…That may be strategic, but it does also reflect genuine changes on the ground [in China].”

China declines to participate in loss-and-damage fund

EARLY SUCCESS: The opening of COP28 was marked by an agreement to “operationalise” the loss-and-damage fund, which Dr Jennifer Allen at the Earth Negotiations Bulletin termed a “big, big win”. Despite a donation by the United Arab Emirates “put[ting] the spotlight on China”, according to Politico, China did not pledge, with Chinese media coverage of the fund being muted.

EVOLVING RESPONSIBILITIES: China Dialogue quoted Avinash Persaud, Barbados’ special envoy for finance, saying: “79% of the stock of greenhouse gases come from the countries that would be defined as developed in 1992. A big part of the other remaining part of the emissions comes from China. I’m happy for us to think about ‘common, but differentiated responsibilities’ as being a vital principle, but not stuck in some particular point of time in measurement. They should be evolving common, but differentiated responsibilities…That would mean that, at some point, China should be a contributor [to the fund]”.

OTHER MECHANISMS: Yuan Ying, chief China representative at Greenpeace East Asia, argues that criticism of China’s position was misguided. China on a per-capita basis is poorer than the UAE – the only developing country to contribute to the fund – she tells Carbon Brief: “China is pretty clear that [payments from] the loss-and-damage fund will prioritise vulnerable and least developed countries. Meanwhile, China is chipping into other channels and platforms to help other countries cope with climate change, like the south-south cooperation fund and Africa climate summit.” Xie echoed this argument at a press conference on 9 December, saying that China “has been carrying out south-south cooperation” over the past 10 years to help other countries build capacity. (Recent analysis for Carbon Brief also underscores this point.)

Pledge to update 2030 and 2035 targets in 2025

NEW NDC: Early on in the COP28 negotiations, Xie announced that China would release a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) that includes targets for both 2035 and 2030, the year before which China has pledged to peak its carbon emissions. “The Chinese government also attaches great importance to this matter,” Xie said. 

REASONING? Li Shuo, director of the China climate hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute, attributes two possible motivations to the announcement: “One is ‘don’t ask us again, there won’t be anything new, wait until 2025’. That’s my interpretation. The other is ‘2030 isn’t entirely fixed, we could still enhance the ambitiousness of the 2030 target’.”

PEAKING TIMELINE: Analysis in Carbon Brief shows that China carbon emissions may enter a “structural decline” as early as next year. An early peak could then affect the level of ambition for the 2030 and 2035 targets. Xie also said at the 9 December press conference that “China has moved from dual control of energy to dual control of carbon emissions, which is a strategic shift”. He added: “If this shift is realised by 2025, China will then determine what year we will reach peak carbon and what the absolute amount of peak carbon will be. But this will certainly not [be] 2030, it will be before 2030.”

Impact of Sunnylands

SETTING THE TONE: The Sunnylands statement – itself a positive signal of thawing US-China relations – set “necessary, but insufficient, conditions for success at COP28”, Li previously told Carbon Brief. The statement itself significantly influenced the final outcome. Key language from the document featured in the final global stocktake text, with US climate envoy John Kerry attributing the success of the methane summit (see below) to “the meeting we had in Sunnylands” in his remarks at the event.

RENEWABLES CENTRED: The Sunnylands statement included a call for the US and China to “pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030…so as to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation”. Nevertheless, China did not sign up to an official pledge to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency. Prof Zou Ji, president of the Energy Foundation China, attributes this to an issue of measurement. He says to Carbon Brief: “ [It has not been clarified which] year should be the base year – should it be 2020 [or] 2022? This might seem technical, but, in the past two years, development of renewables – both globally, but particularly in China – has been greatly boosted. So using different [base years] could be very significant.” Wang says he believes that China’s unwillingness to sign was “due to a line on acknowledging the need to phase out unabated fossil fuels”, which was not acceptable to the country. By contrast, Professor Pan Jiahua, vice-chair of the national expert committee on climate change, member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and director of its Research Center for Sustainable Development plus director of Beijing University of Technology’s Institute of Eco-Civilization Studies, tells Carbon Brief that tripling renewable energy was “not enough” and that countries should be more ambitious.

GOOD VIBES: In the early days of COP28, Chinese state media published several articles highlighting the importance of cooperation with the US. The two countries were often reported to be having hour-long meetings and, in the final days of COP28, rumours circulated that a US-China joint statement was imminent.

WHAT NEXT? Kerry also said at the methane summit that the friendship between him and Xie “was the reason we could work together in Paris, in Glasgow and now in Dubai”. With Xie likely to now be replaced by Liu Zhenmin, there is an important open question about whether Liu will be able to maintain this positive dynamic. (Liu and veteran US negotiator Susan Biniaz were seen together on multiple occasions, while Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s special representative for international climate policy and former Greenpeace co-leader, told the audience that they had held discussions on Germany’s net-zero transition.) And, despite his and Kerry’s respective ages – Xie is 74 and Kerry just turned 80 – Xie said at the 9 December press conference: “We will not leave this field, we will still do our best to promote progress in this field.”

Global stocktake to boost China’s renewables drive 

PHASEDOWN NOT PHASEOUT: The final draft of the global stocktake did not refer to a “fossil fuel phase-out”, instead calling for “tripling renewable energy capacity”, “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power”, using “abatement and removal technologies…particularly in hard-to-abate sectors”, while transitioning away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly and equitable manner”. All of which aligns with China’s policy priorities. 

COMPROMISE: The document was a “compromise text”, Li explains, with the overall language on coal being “very modest”. Pan characterises it in comments to Carbon Brief as “based on a consensus that actions must be taken in line with the 1.5C target”. He argues that the outcome showed that a “negotiated accord…[is] not a solution” and, instead, the global stocktake should shift focus from “restricting” fossil fuels to “accelerating zero-carbon industries”. Meanwhile, Yuan says in a statement the text “will undoubtedly further boost China’s already booming renewable energy sector, accelerate the substitution of coal power and achieve the country’s target of peaking emissions”. However, she adds: “The final text lacks clear and effective implementation pathways.”

TRADE SPATS: China also suggested in its initial submission to the UNFCCC that language be included on “rising unilateralism, protectionism and anti-globalism”. However, the final text saw this watered down to “measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade”. Li points out that “this is actually stronger” than language in the Sunnylands statement, which the Chinese delegation “should be happy about”. The EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) seems to have faded from the text. “I think the consensus is that CBAM is to be discussed at the World Trade Organisation, not at the UN,” Yan Qin, carbon analyst at the London Stock Exchange Group, tells Carbon Brief.

US and China trumpet methane cooperation

ON THE AGENDA: On 2 December, Carbon Brief attended the summit on methane and non-CO2 greenhouse gases, co-hosted by China, the US and UAE. The summit was intended as a strong political signal of US-China cooperation and the importance they both now place on reducing methane emissions. In his remarks at the event, Kerry emphasised the countries’ progress in driving the conversation, noting that methane “was not even talked about in Paris”. 

FIRST STEPS: Xie described the summit as an “important step”. However, he argued, China has a “poor foundation” for regulating methane, adding: “We need concrete measures, we need capital support and we also need a feasible technical pathway on how we can join hands to tackle climate change.”

LACK OF TARGETS: As with China’s domestic methane emissions action plan, however, the methane summit did not see any concrete targets for reducing methane. “I hope that we can maintain the momentum,” Li tells Carbon Brief, because, “of [all the] topics they could choose, they chose methane”. It would be frustrating if this level of momentum “still can’t move the ball”, he adds.

Quoted at COP28

FRAMING COP28 BACK HOME: Li Shuo: “We need to recognise the domestic politics…Try to imagine a fistfight at the beginning of COP28. If you’re a general Chinese reader and you see that on the news…Is that helpful for the Chinese leadership?…So I think it’s pretty smart that COP28 had a smooth start [with the operationalisation of the loss-and-damage fund].”

TRADE DISPUTES: Yuan Ying: “We need open, inclusive and collaborative supply chains for renewable energy, then we can work collectively to achieve the targets of tripling renewable energy.”

METHANE EMISSIONS: Prof Alex Wang: “China could target a certain subsection of local leaders, put a lot of pressure on them to get rid of methane and then in two years declare a big success on the international stage…I heard one person mention that [efforts] could be framed in terms of worker safety…[which is] a real black mark in Chinese governance.”

CLIMATE, NATURE AND PEOPLE: Lu Lunyan, WWF China CEO, tells Carbon Brief in a statement: “Protecting nature and modifying agro-food systems is an essential part of effective climate action, but it is unfortunate that countries have failed to adopt the IPCC’s recommendation to include the protection of 30-50% of all ecosystems in the text”.

Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth summary of COP28’s key outcomes of COP28. And Anika Patel, Carbon Brief’s China analyst, will be participating in Carbon Brief’s COP28 webinar tomorrow, 15 December, at 3pm (UK time). Sign up is free.

CONSEQUENTIAL RELATIONSHIPS: With Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua set to retire after COP28, Foreign Policy looked back on how he and US climate envoy John Kerry forged a bond “over decades of [climate] negotiations”.

DUBAI FIRESIDE: The Wall Street Journal interviewed John Kerry on China’s climate policy and his experience working with Xie Zhenhua.

DECIPHERING COP28: Carbon Brief’s China analyst (and author of this newsletter) Anika Patel spoke on the China-Global South Podcast to break down China’s positions at COP28.

TOP 10: In China Energy Net, Kevin Tu, managing director of Agora Energy Transition China, highlighted 10 issues he was watching out for at COP28.

Rapid attribution of the record-breaking heatwave event in north China in June 2023 and future risks
Environmental Research Letters

The record-breaking heatwave that hit North China over 22-24 June 2023 – in which Beijing reached or exceeded temperatures of 40C for three consecutive days for the first time –  was made around 1C hotter due to human-caused climate change, according to a new study. The authors carried out a “rapid attribution study” to assess the role of climate change on the event. They find that by the end of the century, in an intermediate emissions scenario, 2023-like heatwave events in North China could be 5.5 times more likely and 2.9C hotter than those under a 2023 climate. They add that, “even if carbon neutrality is achieved”, 2023-like events could occur at least 1.6 times throughout the remainder of the century and be 0.5C hotter. 

Electrifying industrial heating in China
Global Efficiency Intelligence

“Plastic recycling, steel reheating processes, steel production and the ammonia industry are the top four industries in terms of CO2 emissions reduction potential from electrification,” according to a new report. The report “identifies specific processes that could be electrified in the near term with commercially available technologies and analyses the expected changes in energy use, CO2 emissions and energy costs”. The authors recommend “integrating electrification in industrial planning and decision-making establishing industry-specific electrification roadmaps”. 

Deploying green hydrogen to decarbonise China’s coal chemical sector
Nature Communications

New research finds that China’s coal chemical production resulted in around 1.1 gigaton CO2 equivalent (GtCO2eq) in 2020 – equal to 9% of national emissions. The authors estimate that emissions from the sector could rise to 1.3 GtCO2eq by 2030, but add that around half of these emissions could be reduced using “solar or wind power-based electrolytic hydrogen and oxygen” to replace coal-based hydrogen and air separation-based oxygen. The paper suggests that the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Ningxia and Xinjiang would be “well suited for pilot policies to advance demonstration projects”.

China Briefing is compiled by Anika Patel and edited by Wanyuan Song and Simon Evans. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected].

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