COP28: China aspires to "present itself as an environmental leader"
As COP28 opened in Dubai, China, the world's largest emitter of CO2, is among the countries without which no progress is possible in terms of greenhouse gas reductions. Yi Lifei, assistant professor of environmental studies at NYU University in Shanghai, analyzes China's environmental policy and what to expect from it at this COP.
A coal processing plant in Hejin, Shanxi Province, central China, Nov. 28, 2019 © AP
By: Stéphane Lagarde Follow
From our correspondent in Beijing,
RFI: China hopes to reach its peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. But China's growth is slowing at a time when decarbonization efforts need to be accelerated. Can China deliver on its goals?
Yi Lifei: In my view, the question of objectives is not posed in those terms. Reducing carbon emissions is a goal that China set for itself a long time ago and, as you know, when it comes to zero-carbon targets, these are intentionally set at a lower level and therefore the results achieved can be "outperformed". So I see no reason to think that China's decarbonisation targets can't be achieved. Why do I say that the question is irrelevant: in reality, even if the objective can be achieved, the question is what the cost will be?
There have already been cases of "outperformance" in terms of energy savings at the regional level. But this comes at a cost. Some areas in China, for example, did not have central heating in the winter and it was colder. In addition, some factories to achieve zero emissions have been forced to stop production for a month or two at the time of peaks in electricity consumption, which has led to a loss of income for many workers. This impact affects a wide range of urban and rural populations. The question is therefore not whether the decarbonisation targets can be achieved. The crucial issue is how many people will bear the cost of the effort to achieve this.
What message do the Chinese authorities want to convey at COP28?
China is expected to make several arguments at this COP. The first point concerns sustainable energy. China is unquestionably one of the leading countries when it comes to renewable energy sources: whether it is the production of solar panels or the photovoltaic capacity already installed. China is also unquestionably ahead of the curve when it comes to green transport and electric vehicles.
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The second point that I think will be somewhat innovative and worth noting, especially from the perspective of China-U.S. relations, is the discussion on reducing methane emissions. Even though the reduction of methane emissions has already been mentioned several times, it has not yet reached a global level of reduction targets or timelines. I think this issue will certainly be raised at this summit. At COP28, China is expected to present the ambitious national plan it proposed last November to control methane emissions.
At the same time, China has not communicated on its methane emissions for almost ten years...
In the future, I believe that discussions on this issue should encourage greater transparency. There is a need for more communication on carbon emissions, understanding where carbon is used and where it is produced, import volumes, and actual use in various sectors. This data transparency is worth encouraging and is in line with China's aspirations to present itself as an environmental leader. To be a true leader, transparency is imperative. The third point could be related to the point of view of the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting the conference. The United Arab Emirates attaches particular importance to food and various issues related to food production, related to carbon emissions and energy consumption, and China has things to say on the subject.
In recent years, Beijing has focused on food security. This is a theme that is often put forward by Chinese diplomacy.
This is likely to be the case again in Dubai. The focus of the event host on concrete aspects, such as food waste, problems of transport, preservation and even consumption is in line with Chinese concerns. The reduction in meat consumption, the efforts required of the agri-food industry in terms of food safety in particular. In many other areas, such as satellite remote sensing data and many others, China has taken a very transparent approach in response to the challenges of globalization. Even if in terms of carbon emissions, China still has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to transparency.
China is one of the leading countries in terms of green energy, as you mentioned, but it has also relaunched the construction of coal-fired power plants since the summer of 2022. How can this paradox be explained?
There is indeed a paradox here: promising to reduce carbon emissions while seemingly increasing carbon consumption at the national level. It's a complex problem, not least because of the massive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on data over the past two years, and the sharp slowdown in economies. The carbon targets were set before the pandemic. Given the emergence of many new economic problems, objectively speaking, achieving these goals has become a real challenge. A pessimistic view suggests that the difficulty of the transition is considerable and that even minor setbacks could lead to significant regression. So it's quite difficult to determine. I, for one, am reluctant to believe that this is an inevitable paradox, but it is a real challenge because in addition to these issues, China has abundant carbon reserves. It is difficult to tell a country with such a wealth of resources not to burn coal.
China made a big contribution to biodiversity efforts at the last COP. Can Beijing help developing countries in their transition?
That's a very interesting question. I believe this is a very urgent and crucial goal for China. Beijing is urgently aiming to become a so-called global leader of the South. One aspect is food security, which we just talked about, and the other is Chinese satellite data. This issue has been discussed several times in various UN agencies. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has set up a program called "Crop Watch." It is a satellite remote sensing data program launched by the Chinese Academy of Sciences using Chinese remote sensing satellites, which mainly focus on monitoring food production. They provide this remote sensing satellite data to developing countries to help them increase their food production and improve the overall sustainability of their food production processes.
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If there is a real intention to become a global leader in the Global South, I think platforms like these could have a significant influence. On the one hand, the cost of building the technological infrastructure required for satellite data collection is very high. Most developing countries, and even some developed countries, may not have the technological and financial capacity to develop such a technology. Therefore, when China proposes such a solution, it is generally well received by developing countries. The urgency for these countries is to eradicate hunger and poverty, which is in line with the Chinese government's current agenda to reduce poverty. So, when you asked earlier whether China could play a leadership role in developing countries when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, I think in specific areas where there is strong alignment with China's domestic policies, such as food production, poverty reduction and food security, There is a high degree of overlap. We often refer to them as "co-benefits". If you reduce carbon emissions in food production, it ultimately leads to an increase in food production and a reduction in poverty.
Are the Chinese ready to do more on the environment? Are the Chinese media and authorities sufficiently encouraging the population to make these efforts?
I think the most significant feature of the Chinese government, compared to Western governments and those of other developing countries, is that it does too much! In the short term, it gets quick results. But in the long run, and this is the paradox, when the government takes charge of all environmental and climate issues, the public ends up thinking that these environmental issues do not concern them directly. Thus, ordinary citizens feel that they do not need to worry about these issues. And you see that even in simple tasks like recycling and waste sorting, citizen participation is relatively low. People see these tasks as strenuous. They will not participate unless they are forced to do so. This applies to the reduction of carbon emissions, the use of air conditioners and cars, and the purchase of new energy vehicles. Without government incentives, you don't take action. Thus, there is rarely a spontaneous response from the public when it comes to the fight against global warming. The Chinese feel that these are things that the government needs to take care of.
Nor, as in many other countries, is there any encouragement for citizens' organisations. It is both a good thing for China to do the same at the level of the authorities, but on the other hand, it would be good for the Chinese government to loosen its grip on certain areas, which would allow for greater public participation. I've written many studies on the subject: when government is willing to let the public participate in specific issues, it ultimately achieves outstanding environmental results.
Some European diplomats are calling for China to accelerate its own timetable for reducing greenhouse gases. What do you think?
I think "phase-out" is something that China has always been very reluctant to do. Of course, there are many objective reasons for this. The first is that China itself has a very high endowment of carbon resources. Another reason is that, in China's official position, a "phase-out" has always been considered unrealistic. In some specific sectors and scenarios, carbon dependence will persist in the long term. So, based on these considerations, I don't believe that China will support a "phase-out," either the concept itself or a timetable for "phase-out." In addition, China continues to assert itself as a developing country, which evokes the concept of emission rights. From this point of view, I don't think China will make any concessions on this negotiating point this year
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