China Can Stop Catastrophic Climate Change. But Will It?

CREDIT: AP Photo / Andy Wong

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, November 12, 2014.

A new study confirms what has been increasingly clear to outside observers: Whether or not the world will avert catastrophic climate change is now, to a large extent, in the hands of the Chinese.

The new London School of Economics (LSE) study, written by analyst Fergus Green and famed climate economist Nicholas Stern, matches what Climate Progress has been hearing and reporting for a while now: China’s coal use appears to have peaked. And that means China’s CO2 will likely peak by 2025 — five years earlier than the public commitment the country made to the world as part of the climate deal with the United States last year.

The world needs to slash greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2050 and then drop to zero emissions or below by 2100 to have a reasonable chance of stabilizing below 2°C — the level that the world’s leading scientists and governments have determined is a threshold beyond which dangerous climate impacts accumulate and accelerate rapidly.

“Whether the world can get onto that [2°C] pathway in the decade or more after 2020 depends in significant part on China’s ability to reduce its emissions at a rapid rate, post-peak (as opposed to emissions plateauing for a long time), on the actions of other countries in the next two decades, and on global actions over the subsequent decades,” the LSE paper explains.

China Coal

China’s coal use (dark orange) has dropped sharply since 2013, according to government data analyzed by Energydesk China. A new London School of Economics study argues China has peaked in coal.

Speeding up climate action outside of China remains vital. All efforts must be taken to preserve, meet, and even beat the CO2 commitments that this country (and others) have made — and to mobilize for even deeper cuts in the future. But the stranglehold the anti-science and pro-pollution crowd have on Congress limits our near-term flexibility to act and lead. And the EU is already committed to cut total emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and will no doubt make stronger commitments in the future.

But China has publicly committed only to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 or earlier, to peak coal use by 2020, and to double its share of carbon-free power by 2030. When the peaks occur and whether they look more like plateaus or actual peaks will determine whether we have a serious chance at avoiding climate catastrophe. That said, the Chinese agreed in the pledge “to make best efforts to peak early” — which strongly suggests they always anticipated peaking earlier.

According to the report’s authors, “to reduce its emissions at a rapid rate, post-peak, China will need to deepen its planned reforms in cities and in the energy system, supported by a concerted approach to clean innovation, green finance and fiscal reforms.” You can find the details in the full report China’s “new normal”: structural change, better growth, and peak emissions from LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and its Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy. I will explore these policies — and the prospects for China embracing them — in subsequent posts.

It bears repeating what China has already committed to is an astonishing reversal of its energy policy, which for two decades has centered around building one or two coal plants a week. Now China will be building the equivalent in carbon-free power every week for decades, while the construction rate of new coal plants decelerates like a crash-test dummy.

In the report, authors Stern and Green include a scenario whereby CO2 emissions from energy could peak as early as 2020. They argue that a China CO2 peak between 2020 and 2025 could allow the world to put global greenhouse gas emissions on the 2°C pathway.

Whether this will happen depends to a great extent on whether China (a very old civilization that often takes a long-term view) wants to be a superpower in a thriving world with a livable climate that it is perceived as helping to have preserved — or in a desperate world without one that it is perceived as having helped destroy. In theory, the United States has the exact same choice, of course, but it’s been a while since anyone claimed that our leaders take a long-term view of things.