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15.10.21 In China, climate action is a matter for the country’s leaders” Interview with Nis Grünberg • Reading time: 4 min.

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Summary

Climate offender or driver of global decarbonization? In China, climate action is among the highest political priorities, but at the same time the country is continuing to build new coal-fired power stations. Sustainability expert Nis Grünberg from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin explains how all of this fits together.

How serious is China about combating climate change?

That’s a difficult question to answer. China believes that climate change represents a genuine threat. The subject has moved right up the government’s agenda since President Xi Jinping gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last December announcing the country’s 2060 target. The government had a climate policy before this of course, but now that it has become a matter for the country’s leaders, it has really started to gain momentum. The problem is that climate action is just one of many important policy areas in China and they are all vying with one another to get to the top of the priority list. Other key issues include economic growth, social development, and political stability. In China these are just as important as preventing climate change.

China is aiming to be climate-neutral by 2060. That is a long way off…

That’s true, but we need to take a look at the history of all of this. Other countries, such as the UK and France, reached their highest level of CO2 emissions in the 1990s. That means it will take them around 50 years to go from peak carbon to climate neutrality. China will produce the maximum amount of carbon dioxide in 2030 and so it will have to become climate-neutral within 30 years. It plans to make this leap much more quickly than other countries and this represents a major technological challenge.

In Germany and in the rest of Europe, there are detailed plans for transforming the energy system. Is there an energy transition taking place in China?

There are a lot of plans on different levels, for example among the large state-owned enterprises and local governments. Since the national five-year plan was approved in March, they have been drawing up their own five-year plans with strategies for reducing CO2. There are a lot of targets that need to be reached by 2030. At the same time, China is continuing to build new coal-fired power plants. This is because there are many powerful local players alongside the central administration that are putting the emphasis on economic development rather than on climate action. However, there are some signs of activity from the Chinese energy authority, which monitors the regions using a traffic light system. Until now, it has taken a relatively relaxed approach to this, but the powerful party disciplinary committee recently expressed serious criticism of the energy authority because of its failure to respond adequately to violations of the rules. Now we just have to wait and see what happens in this area in the run-up to the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow and also after it is over.

Is China relying on specific technologies to combat climate change?

The country is experiencing a hydrogen craze at the moment, because hydrogen is seen as the key technology of the future. More than ten provinces have already drawn up strategy papers in this area and new ones are being issued almost on a daily basis. Significant investments in hydrogen production and hydrogen cars are planned in the period up to 2025 and work is also just starting on large-scale demonstration projects to manufacture hydrogen using wind and solar energy.

Nis Grünberg

What role does nuclear energy play in the Chinese energy transition?

This area is a relatively new one in China. However, the country is already planning or starting the construction of 47 new nuclear power plants. After the reactor accident in Fukushima there was a moratorium, in part because the Chinese people’s attitude to nuclear energy changed, though the Chinese leadership still sees nuclear power as a clean source of energy and an important alternative to coal-fired power generation. Nuclear power plants will provide the baseload electricity for the large cities in particular.

Nis Grünberg

What do the Chinese people think about climate change? Is there a climate action movement there in the same way as there is in Europe and the USA?

The environment has been an important issue in China for a long time, in part because of the heavy smog in some Chinese cities. President Xi Jinping declared war on air pollution in 2015 and a lot has happened in this respect in the meantime. There are many civil society organizations that are working with local governments to find solutions to the problems of air and water pollution. Climate change is a new subject, but people do understand that it is an important issue. The residents of the large cities in particular are very interested in it, but I’m not certain to what extent people outside cities such as Beijing and Shanghai see climate change as being an area where they need to take action.

What is China’s role at international climate conferences?

Over recent years, the country has switched from blocking to driving change, at least in its public communications. In the past, China referred to itself as an emerging economy and called on the USA and the EU, for example, to act as first movers. Today, China does not believe that its status has changed, but at the same time it is taking on a more active leadership role. This is also due to the fact that the Chinese government has no confidence in US climate policy. The Chinese leaders are not certain about what will happen there in the long term and, therefore, they want to intervene themselves. But overall, China is seen as one of the major climate offenders, in particular because of its coal-dominated energy system. The next few years will show how much political will really lies behind Beijing’s announcements.


Vita

Nis Grünberg, Sustainability expert at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin

Nis Grünberg’s research at MERICS focuses on the relationship between the Chinese state and the Communist Party, elite politics, and sustainable development in China. He has published papers on the Chinese energy sector and the reform of state-owned enterprises. He also coordinates research in the Politics & Society team at MERICS. Before joining MERICS, Grünberg was a postdoctoral researcher at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and the Sino-Danish Center, Beijing. He holds a PhD from CBS and BA and MA degrees in China Studies from Copenhagen University. He has also studied at Shanghai International Studies University, the National University of Singapore, and the Free University of Berlin.

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