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The weekend read: The blind spot in China's climate ambition

Cecilia Han Springer, senior researcher at the Global China Initiative at Boston University, on what it takes to decarbonise the Belt and Road Initiative

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Lou Del Bello

Nov 08 2020

9 mins read

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China’s carbon neutrality pledge, that sees the world’s biggest polluter promising to reach net zero emissions by 2060, is already raising the bar for climate ambition around the world. Since it was announced, Japan and South Korea have come forward with their own 2050 neutrality pledges. 

The plan is visionary, but so far light on detail.

As more information emerges every day, I caught up with Cecilia Han Springer, a senior researcher at the Global China Initiative within the Global Development Policy Centre at Boston University, which has recently published a comprehensive database of China’s foreign energy investments. Here, we look into the disconnect between what China is promising at home, and what still needs to be done to inject the same climate and social justice awareness into its flagship foreign investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative.


Lights On: We know about the big target - China wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and peak its emissions before 2030. But how will this transition work in practice? Are there any obvious roadblocks?

Cecilia Han Springer: It's not been too long since they made this announcement, and I think that in the coming weeks and months we can look for some specific sub-targets that are nearer term than 2060, which is just so far away it's hard to imagine a pathway to get there. 

But right now, there are lots of researchers and think tanks that are churning out different scenarios to achieve that goal. I think that the government in China will look at some of those scenarios and start setting more near-term targets for specific sectors, like achieving a certain amount of renewable energy by 2035, or 2040. Overall, [China is] incredibly serious about this goal, I don't think they would have announced it if they didn't think that it was technologically achievable. It also shows a lot of faith, and a lot of pressure that's going to fall on certain industries within China to make this happen. For example, the grid companies will need to innovate and bring down costs for carbon capture technologies, to help achieve that goal.


We know that through the Belt and Road Initiative China is deploying a lot of energy capacity, much of which is fossil fuel based, across the world. How does this square with their climate targets at home?

I think there remains to be any sort of concrete policy governing the climate impacts of China's overseas investments. Around the same time as the carbon neutrality announcement, there was some rhetoric around aligning China's overseas investments with its climate goals, but I have not seen anything specific or concrete yet, such as ‘we can only do this much coal’, or ‘we want to do this much renewable energy’, or ‘this needs to be the emissions intensity of our overseas portfolio’, nothing specific or binding like that. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next year or two there did come to be some kind of a target or policy governing the overseas investments. But for now, I think China is thinking hard about what this green BRI might mean, but I don't think there are specific answers yet.


Do you think that the amount of renewable energy development and promotion that this big climate plan will entail domestically and abroad will be able to offset the amount of carbon heavy investments?

If we're looking at the investments that we currently know about, the ones that are tracked in our database, I think that is certainly not the case. For currently operating plants, the share of capacity in renewable energy is about 11 percent, compared to 40 percent for coal.

And if we then look at the planned and under construction plants, from now until 2033, the share of renewable energy capacity is only 12 percent, which is not much higher. I would hope that as we continue to update our database, and new projects are announced that share of renewable energy will go up significantly. But right now, it's certainly not happening on a scale that could compensate for all of the fossil fuel investments.


You mentioned that scientists and think tanks are scrambling to plot pathways to carbon neutrality for China. But there is also a lot of attention on how this transition will influence the world. For example, one study mentions a ‘spillover effect’, whereby China will drive a global energy transition by lowering the cost of green technologies. On the other side of the spectrum, others believe that China’s monopoly on industries such as solar has prevented diversification and stifled innovation. Which scenario rings truer to you?

I would think the former. It's hard to predict what will happen with technology in the long term, but between now and the year 2060 there's clearly a tremendous opportunity for China to scale up technologies such as carbon capture and storage domestically and reduce costs. But I don't see that process happening without cooperation with international partners.

What happened in China's domestic solar industry, and how they were able to bring down the cost of solar panel manufacturing, has certainly been quite exceptional. And maybe I'm being naive, but I think of carbon capture as a more large-scale technology and one that's oriented towards global benefits, namely reduction of CO2 emissions. And so I don't see why China wouldn't cooperate with international partners in both directions to deploy this technology.

For example, I'm hoping that things like the US-China clean energy research centers that were created under President Obama may come back or be scaled up under a new administration.


In India, cheap Chinese technology has enabled a real solar revolution. But at the same time, it's created a near monopoly, which means the Indian manufacturers are not ready to meet solar panel demand and remain dependent on imports. How do you think China and other countries could navigate this collaboration in a way that enables a more diverse landscape of energy innovation, rather than creating monopolies?

I think that's a really important question, not just for clean energy technologies, but for a lot of other projects that are going on in the Belt and Road Initiative. In some of the host countries that are facilitating China's overseas investments there's increasing domestic resistance to the patterns that you just mentioned, where China brings in its own technology and its own workers. And the process is entirely managed within a pretty tight system that doesn't allow any sort of spillover or learning on the part of the host country partners. 

But I think that that might be changing. When it comes to China's overseas investments, we shouldn't only care about the climate implications of the Belt and Road initiative, we should also care about what are the real benefits to the host nations. I think the verdict is still out on the net benefit of many of these projects, and that will continue to lead to these negative perceptions in host countries of Chinese partners. And the more that that happens, the less that the Belt and Road Initiative can achieve its strategic geopolitical goals.


How can poor countries navigate Chinese dominance in the energy space?

What you might call distributional effects or the environmental justice angles of China's overseas investments are not really well characterized. I think there needs to be more research on the footprint of these Chinese investments, but specifically where they're located, who are they affecting. For example, is there some tendency for them to be located near poorer or more vulnerable populations? These are questions we think a lot about in the US when it comes to power plants or incinerators, but I haven't seen a sort of large scale analysis of that for China's overseas investments, because as an international research community we tend to lump together host countries. 

For example we can say that Bangladesh is vulnerable to exploitation by China's overseas investment, but who, within a given host country, is benefiting from the BRI or is getting hit hardest by the impacts of say, building out a lot of coal plants? It's really a matter of more systematically weighing the benefits and the costs. 


We could almost say that overseas energy investment is the missing piece of China's climate ambition.

I think that it's also a question of political will. China's leaders are very happy to take credit for this incredible 2060 announcement. The announcement had follow up statements by Korea and Japan to be carbon neutral by 2050. So clearly China is setting this new standard, but I don't think that the same people who formulated the domestic goal are really that worried about China's overseas footprint. 

Certainly the emissions associated with China's overseas investment are not accounted for in domestic emissions accounts. And there isn't really a legal framework, or even a policy framework to hold Chinese companies accountable for that. I mean, there isn't for any country, this is something that lots of countries are dealing with. So I think that it has to become an issue, and the international community has to make it an issue for domestic policymakers in China before something will happen.


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