China’s ambition on climate change in a post-pandemic world

In the 21st century avoiding catastrophic climate change demands a more ambitious climate action agenda. Xi Jinping’s recent pledge to strive to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 signals a stronger commitment towards de-carbonising the Chinese economy while meeting enhanced obligations under the Paris Agreement. Whether China can increase the pace of its domestic energy transition while de-carbonising investments abroad remains a critical concern for its global climate leadership. Of equal importance, yet often overlooked, is the question of how China is responding to the climate emergency from a security perspective. The official line, repeatedly endorsed at the United Nations Security Council, is that climate change is essentially a development issue. In a post-pandemic world, this paper argues that China’s ambition on climate change can no longer be assessed simply on the basis of its national contribution alone. Instead, China’s climate actions need to be understood in a global context, taking into account the high stakes involved in managing the shift towards a green recovery while simultaneously preparing for a less stable strategic environment.



The last decade was the warmest on record.[1] Planetary warming is leading to the intensification of extreme events such as typhoons and heatwaves while accelerating slow-onset risks to water and food security caused by sea-level rise and the melting of the glaciers and icecaps. Avoiding the catastrophic effects of climate change will require limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre- industrial levels, requiring a 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030 from a 2010 baseline. Emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement still fall far short of meeting this target. Even after locking down most of the global economy at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is still on track for a 3.2 °C temperature rise by the end of this century. Estimates from the Global Carbon Project show a 7% decline in global CO2 emissions in 2020 with the highest reductions in the United States (12%) and the European Union (9%).[2] According to the International Energy Agency, China was the

only country to experience a slight growth in carbon emissions of around 0.8%.[3] Yet, the trajectory of atmospheric CO2 concentrations has continued unabated, reaching around 412 parts per million (ppm) at the end of 2020 due to the cumulative effect of rising emissions over time. Latest reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate a limit of 430 ppm for a 1.5 °C pathway.

Clearly, climate action over the coming decade will be critical in limiting global warming. To this end, the global pandemic has acted as a catalyst for positive change – in the lead up to COP 26 to be hosted by the UK and Italy in November 2021, many countries have committed to a post-pandemic green recovery aimed at decarbonising energy, industrial, and transportation systems, creating greener jobs, and protecting biodiversity. To date, major emitters including the United States, European Union, and China have signed up to net-zero emissions, otherwise known as carbon neutrality, by mid-century. Momentum is also building to tip the political balance of interests more in favour of supporting climate adaptation and resilience, protecting those states and communities that have contributed the least to the crisis, yet are likely to experience the worst impacts.

Greater recognition of the potential for climate disruption to act as a force multiplier on global instability has further reinforced the urgency of responding to climate change on the global security agenda. Extreme weather events, sea- level rise, mass loss of glaciers and sea ice, and other climate-related impacts pose severe risks to the resilience of ecosystems as well as food and water security with associated effects on political stability, conflicts, and the mass displacement of peoples. Over the past year, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has held two high level meetings on climate security. At the most recent debate on 23 February 2021 Secretary General António Guterres put forward the case for recognising climate change as a global threat and a “crisis amplifier and multiplier”.[4]

A number of UNSC resolutions now include references to the impact of climate change on national and regional instability. But divisions remain over the question of whether climate change constitutes a security threat under the United Nations Charter. The Chinese official line, recently endorsed at the UNSC, is that climate change does pose a systemic threat to humanity. In the words of Climate Envoy, Xie Zhenhua “Climate change has become a pressing and serious threat to the survival, development and security of humankind”.[5] But China has consistently maintained that a direct linkage between climate change and conflict does not exist and that climate change is “in essence a development issue” that is more effectively addressed under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council.

The sheer magnitude of the climate change agenda means that it cannot be easily compartmentalised into development, environmental, or security realms of global governance. Hence any notion that the climate crisis can be defined strictly on the basis of a development versus security dichotomy is outdated. Nor is it possible to achieve the common purpose of safeguarding planetary survival via the coordination of national climate contributions alone. With sovereignty comes stewardship. Greater commitment will be required from major emitters in particular to ensure a climate-resilient future. Seen from this vantage point, this paper argues that China’s ambition on climate change needs to be understood both in relation to its national development trajectory and its rising status within global governance, taking into account the high stakes involved in managing the shift towards a green recovery while simultaneously preparing for a less stable strategic environment.

China’s climate ambition

China is the world’s leading emitter of CO2 emissions accounting for around 28% of global emissions in 2019 (11.71 GT). It is also the world’s leading consumer of coal, comprising over 50% of the global share. While CO2 emissions per capita are still far lower than the United States, aggregate emissions have continued to rise aligned with economic growth. More worrying is the recent trend towards increasing coal consumption. In 2019, coal fired generating capacity grew by 40 GW (total 1050 GW), making up 58% of China’s total energy consumption. Post-pandemic stimulus spending (estimated US$970 billion) has not focused significantly on low-carbon development but, instead, more on traditional infrastructure, innovation, and the digital economy. Government bonds for infrastructure have been used to fund coal-fired plants at the local level.[6]

On the opposite side of the ledger, China is a global leader in the production and consumption of renewable energy. The installed capacity of wind, solar, and hydro power is the largest in the world. In 2019 around 25% of electricity in China came from renewables; and electric vehicle ownership reached 50% of the world’s total. Considerable improvements are also evident in relation to energy efficiency. And China now has the world’s second largest green bond market, worth almost US$120 billion, although it is still lagging behind international standards.[7]

China’s contribution towards tackling climate change is aligned with its national development goals and self-declared status as a responsible major developing country. Under the rubric of building an ecological civilization, central planning objectives seek to integrate climate change into national socio-economic planning, balance mitigation and adaptation, and control emissions. It is fair to say that national climate policies are relatively advanced, but current climate targets are set below ambition for the purpose of achieving compatibility with a 1.5 °C or even 2 °C pathway.

Xi Jinping’s symbolic pledge made at the 75th United Nations General Assembly on 21 September 2020 to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060 signals a clear commitment towards de-carbonising the Chinese economy, albeit on the basis of a conservative emissions trajectory. At the virtual Climate Summit hosted by President Biden in April 2021, Xi Jinping further made a commitment to peak coal consumption in China by 2025 and phase down the use of coal during the 15th Five Year Plan (2026-2030).[8]

China first announced the introduction of climate-related targets in the lead up to the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. Under the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2016- 2020), it reached all of these targets including lowering carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) by 45% from 2005 levels; increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 15%; and increasing the forest stock volume by 1.3 billion m3 (2005 levels). In 2015 under the Paris Agreement, China further committed to slowly peaking CO2 emissions around 2030, lowering carbon intensity by 60% to 65% (2005 levels) before 2030, and increasing forest stock volume by 4.5 billion m3 (2005 levels) over the same time period.

The recently launched 14th FYP (2021-2025) does not stipulate a cap on carbon emissions. Nor does it mention a binding cap on the percentage of coal consumption in the energy mix. The only small change is a non-binding target to increase the share of non-fossil fuel to 25% by 2030. While many commentators have noted the inverse relationship between the 14th FYP and more ambitious climate goals at the central level, less attention has been given to the notable shift towards target-setting at the sub-national level that may yield stronger results in terms of the actual implementation. In the absence of a formal GDP target, local government agencies now have a stronger incentive to implement decarbonization policies. Moreover, the recently launched national emissions trading system may help to further reduce carbon intensity levels, depending upon the price of carbon and the cap on the number of permits allowed.

Beyond target setting, China’s climate ambition represents a balancing act between multiple national priorities: emissions reduction, pollution control, ecological conservation, and energy security. The latter has taken on additional paramountcy in recent years as a consequence of the changing geopolitical landscape, trade conflict with the United States, and disruption to supply chains brought about by the pandemic. To be energy secure, China will need to reduce its dependency upon fossil fuel imports. This may well lead to contradictory policies over the coming decade: reinforcing the trend towards increasing fossil fuels while also advancing investment in renewable energy. It remains to be seen how a stronger emphasis upon national self-reliance will affect China’s national climate policy as well as its growing investments abroad.

Beyond the national contribution

From a global perspective, China’s current ambition is lagging behind in two important respects. First, Chinese international investments and financing have not kept pace with the transition towards low-carbon development at the domestic level. China is the world’s largest sponsor of coal-fired power stations.[9] While overall lending in the energy sector has declined during the pandemic, it is still the case that Chinese-funded infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) risk locking in carbon for decades to come. A study by Tsinghua University estimated that the total carbon footprint of the BRI could account for up to two thirds of global emissions by 2050 on a business-as- usual basis.[10]

Shifting in the direction of sustainable investment will require far stronger regulatory controls as well as a broader commitment on the part of Chinese state-owned enterprises and financial institutions to incorporate climate risks into infrastructure planning. In the short term, disinvesting from building coal-fired power stations abroad may simply happen on the basis of declining global demand. Pakistan has announced it will stop building coal plants by 2030, and China has recently refused to fund coal mining and power plants in Bangladesh. According to Asian Development Bank estimates, climate-adjusted infrastructure demand in developing Asia is around US$1.7 trillion per year.[11] A major dilemma facing the BRI is that it is not possible to address climate risks within the confines of national borders. Given the emphasis upon connectivity, much more needs to be done to support integrated water basin management, facilitate data sharing across borders, and encourage transboundary climate- related impact assessments.

The second lag factor relates to security. Often overlooked, is the question of how China is responding to the climate emergency from a security perspective, especially in its own neighbourhood. The Asia region, including East, South, and Southeast Asia, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Recent studies show significant glacial melting across the Hindu Kush Himalaya region over the past four decades. Even on a 1.5 °C pathway, up to 40% of the glaciers that feed the major river systems of Asia could disappear by the end of this century with devastating consequences for the millions of people who rely upon the water supply for food, livelihoods, and energy security. Heavily populated low- lying coastal regions are also highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, storms, and typhoons. While flood risks are highest in India, China, and Bangladesh, water shortages across East Asia are acute due to over-exploitation and changing precipitation patterns. Almost half of the 281 natural disasters occurring in 2018 were located in the Asia Pacific with an upward trend in climate-related events and slow-onset hazards such as droughts.[12] Extreme rainfall in Western Japan in the summer led to devastating floods followed by heatwaves. In September when Typhoon Mangkhut hit the Philippines, affecting over 2 million people across the region, it reached a storm surge of 2.7 metres with increasing intensity due to higher sea temperatures.[13]

Climate change has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing territorial disputes whether on land or in the maritime arena, building infrastructure in climate- sensitive conflict zones risks the aggravation of forced displacement, and across the region the cumulative negative effects of climate change threaten to offset development gains, thus reaffirming the need to integrate climate change into regional peace and security. Existing regional architecture in Asia has yet to fully embrace the climate security agenda, despite being home to a large number of climate hot spots. Extending early warning systems and incorporating climate emergency planning into defence cooperation could help in initiating a regional response mechanism. Maritime security dialogues also need to consider the longer-term effects of rising sea levels on low-lying atolls.

In an era of accelerated global warming, China’s ambition on climate change matters in multiple ways. It is essential for the purpose of supporting the goals of the Paris Agreement; symbolically it serves as a standard for developing nations transitioning towards low-carbon development; and it represents the ultimate test of China’s global leadership. Moving beyond a narrowly defined national contribution is crucial in order to promote a greater sense of stewardship at home and abroad. In Asia, and across the world, rising emissions, clean energy transition, and severe climatic impacts are all happening simultaneously. If China is intent on pursuing global leadership, it will need to confront the question of what it means to promote development, peace, and security under conditions of a warming planet. Strategically, the task ahead offers an opportunity to shift the calculus away from zero-sum struggles over territory and scarce resources and towards a positive-sum logic of safeguarding human and planetary survival. It is precisely this positive strategic logic that needs to drive joint climate action between China, the EU and the US in the lead up to COP 26 and beyond.


[1] World Meteorological Organization (2020) “2020 on track to be one of the three warmest years on record”, 2 December, available online

[2] Carbon Brief (2020) “Global Carbon Project: Coronavirus causes ‘record fall’ in fossil-fuel emissions in 2020”, 11 December, available online

[3] International Energy Agency (2021) Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2020, 2 March, available online

[4] United Nations (2021) “Secretary- General’s remarks to the Security Council – on addressing climate-related security risks to international peace and security through mitigation and resilience building”, 23 February, available online

[5] United Nations (2021) “Climate Change ‘Biggest Threat Modern Humans Have Ever Faced’, World- Renowned Naturalist Tells Security Council, Calls for Greater Global Cooperation”, United Nations Security Council Press Release, 23 February, available online

[6] Yi, S. (2020) “Is China post- pandemic recovery off the green track?”, China Dialogue, 18 December, available online

[7] Escalante, D., Choi, J., Chin, N., Cui, Y., Larsen, M.L. (2020) “The State and Effectiveness of the Green Bond Market in China”, Climate Policy Initiative, available online

[8] The White House (2021) “Leaders Summit on Climate Change Summary of Proceedings”, 23 April, available online

[9] Ma, X. (2020) “Fueling Up: Mapping China’s Global Power”, Boston University Global Development Policy Centre, 26 October, available online

[10] Ma, J., Zadek, S. (2019) Decarbonizing the Belt and Road: A Green Finance Roadmap, available online

[11] Asian Development Bank (2017) “Asia Infrastructure Needs Exceed $1.7 Trillion Per Year, Double Previous  Estimates”, 28 February, available online

[12] UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (2019) “Summary of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019”, UN Economic and Social Council, 2 July, available online

[13] UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (2019) Asia Disaster Report 2019 – The Disaster Riskscape Across Asia-Pacific: Pathways for Resilience, Inclusion and Empowerment, available online

Published in:

  • Events & Training Programs

Copyright © 2024. Torino World Affairs Institute All rights reserved

  • Privacy Policy
  • Cookie Policy