Jun 3, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The struggle of reading the future of China's carbon emissions pledges

Chinese flag redesigned with the sun and solar panels
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

New statements from Chinese officials are something of a Rorschach test when it comes to the country's climate commitments.

Why it matters: China is by far the world's largest greenhouse gas-producing nation.

Driving the news: China's environment ministry said yesterday that despite the pandemic, the country is not backing off its targets under the Paris climate deal, Reuters reports.

  • A half-decade ago China pledged, in what's known as a "nationally determined contribution," (NDC) that its emissions would peak by 2030 at the latest and ideally well sooner.
  • It also pledged to obtain 20% of its energy from non-fossil sources by then, and cut carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 60%-65%.

But, but, but: China last year signaled that it plans to strengthen its targets, and one Chinese policy watcher says the new comments create doubt.

  • Countries are crafting revised pledges under Paris ahead of the next big UN climate summit, which has been delayed a full year to late 2021 thanks to COVID-19
  • Li Shuo of Greenpeace said the transcript of the ministry's statement notes that it vows only a progress report and additional measures on implementing the existing pledge.
  • He said on Twitter that it's a sign that China may no longer be planning to strengthen its targets.

What they're saying: "I would say it indicates low appetite for higher climate ambition," Li told me via email.

  • "I don’t think we have the crystal ball yet to tell whether this low ambition will stretch all the way to COP26, which is 1.5 years away from now," he said, referring to the acronym for the "conference of the parties," which means the UN summit.

The intrigue: He sees the U.S. election as a "major variable" in the Chinese calculation about the future of its plan.

Tufts University professor Kelly Sims Gallagher called the Chinese statement a "strong signal" that they'll honor their existing commitment despite economic challenges from the pandemic.

  • Gallagher, an expert on Chinese climate policy, notes that the timing for nations to strengthen their NDCs is ambiguous because of the UN conference delay.
  • "The prospects for China strengthening its NDC will be improved if Biden wins the election," she told me via email.
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