Dear EarthTalk: I’m confused: Is China’s government committed to fighting climate change or just making the problem worse?
Paul J., Austin, Texas
In the wake of the global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, nations across the globe are not only self-reflecting, but also expecting others to carry their weight as we desperately try to keep the planet from warming. China is a common target for criticism when it comes to emissions; the most populous country on the planet uses fossil fuels for 87% of its energy production. To exacerbate the issue, 80% of that fossil fuel usage is represented by coal energy production. China is the world’s largest producer of coal, consuming more than half of the global supply.
China’s President Xi Jinping has responded to criticism surrounding the nation’s coal production by pledging to phase down its coal usage starting in 2026 as well as halting construction on new coal plants abroad. While they will not be expanding coal plants to other countries, China has 60 new coal plants in production nationally, arguing that they have a right to pollute as they develop their country much like Western nations did to develop their economies.
China has been the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions since 2006, and today they are responsible for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. While they have shown to be prolific polluters, the nation is also demonstrating that they are on the cutting edge of renewable energy. China leads the globe in solar energy production with 254,355 megawatts annually, while the next closest country, the United States, produces only 75,572 megawatts.
It is important to acknowledge that when it comes to the raw data associated with both greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy production, China’s 1.4 billion population (more than four times that of the U.S.) inflates those values. When broken down to the percentage of energy use, the United States and China are much closer than it seems. The United States uses renewable energy for 9% of its total energy production while China’s renewable energy production makes up 10% of their total energy use. Both countries score as being “highly insufficient” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their efforts to reach emissions reduction goals required to mitigate warming.
China’s latest announcement includes their goal to have emissions peak by 2030 and ultimately reach carbon neutrality by 2060. While this goal is far from being able to reduce the impacts of warming, environmental diplomats are optimistic that China will achieve these goals early, citing that China achieved nine of the 15 quantitative targets in its 2015 climate commitments ahead of schedule.
Reducing emissions does not mean that China will cut all of their fossil fuel use, but they can also put effort into carbon sequestration through reforestation. China is getting greener at a rate faster than any other country with some areas increasing vegetation coverage by 16% per decade. On a global scale, while the sheer population of the country makes their pollution numbers seem much worse, they are on the same track as other global leaders like the United States: taking “green” strides, but just not fast enough.