By Natalie Kaplan
Wind farms dot Northern China, from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the deserts of Xinjiang and Gansu. China leads the world in installed capacity of wind and solar energy, over 92,000 in all. In 2016, it installed a whopping 23.4 gigawatts of turbines.
China has been running pilot carbon markets in seven major industrial cities in anticipation of the rollout of a national carbon market later this year. In these “cap and trade” systems, a cap is set on carbon emissions and allowances to emit carbon are bought and traded. As part of its nationally determined contributions to the Paris climate agreement, China has also committed to reaching a carbon emissions peak by 2030. Many experts estimate that it will hit this point before then. It has made renewable energy commitments an important part of its massive One Belt One Road infrastructure plan that will stretch across the Eurasian continent.
There is a strong domestic impetus driving this change. China’s overpopulated, water-strained geography means that it will be severely negatively affected by climate change. The existing pollution hampers its economic productivity, increases health costs, and dampens tourism. Public opinion is strongly against pollution and the government will go to great lengths to preserve domestic stability. Additionally, decreasing pollution aligns with the country’s overall economic goals to move from a heavy-industry, export-oriented economy to one that is more service-oriented. A move towards more global climate cooperation would also fulfill the country’s foreign policy goals, bringing it into closer alliances with the EU countries.
All of these disparate elements might point to a fairly cohesive government commitment to combating climate change, but will such a commitment necessarily lead China to an enhanced global leadership role? Are these environmental campaigns, which are still facing structural hurdles in practice, substantial enough to catapult it to the front of the environmental movement?
The wind farms have been heralded as a striking achievement, evidence of China’s commitment to leading the fight against climate change. But many of these wind farms stand unused or underutilized, plagued by a myriad of problems that include a stumbling economy and preferential coal policies. Many have still not been hooked up to the state power grid, hence, while China leads in installed capacity, it is not yet leading in electricity generation.
Meanwhile, an estimated 40.24 million metric tons of carbon have been traded as of last year since the inception of the program in 2013. But a closer look at the data indicates that most of these markets have very low liquidity. Allowance trading spikes around the compliance deadline, indicating that the involved companies are only trading because they have to, not because the market is actually functioning. In many of the pilots, issues with transparency led these companies to overestimate their emissions so that they would not have to reduce emissions to participate in the pilot.
It could be said that, in its environmental efforts, China often obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, therefore the fear and fervor about China overtaking the United States as a global leader seems misplaced. In addition to those examples, China still continues to finance coal plants in Southeast Asia and to plan for new plants across the One Belt One Road route despite its own decision to no longer construct new coal plants.
China may see itself as a global climate leader, but its motivations and methodology are inherently different from the doctrine of moral liberalism and collective benefit found in the United States. Instead, it is likely to use its environmental efforts to achieve political gains—by partnering with the EU in the Paris climate agreement to further economic ties and solidify the endpoint of its belt and road initiative or combating pollution in order to remove a potential source of domestic political instability. Will China be at the forefront of the fight against climate change? Yes. But will it be leading it? Unlikely. Nevertheless, China's efforts along with those by other key countries should help herald a new coalition against the threats of climate change in the absence of American leadership.
Natalie Kaplan is a Strategic Trust Building Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York. She is a master’s student of Asian Studies and Environmental Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is very excited to be back on the East Coast after spending the first year of the program in Nanjing, China.