As was the case with India, China was slow to give up on coal as the source of energy and heating. But at the same time, it was investing significant amounts of domestic resources for developing renewable sources of energy. According to one newspaper analysis issued on the eve of the Global Parties meeting in Egypt, “China is poised to tackle climate change. It is the world’s dominant manufacturer and user of solar panels and wind turbines. It leads the world in producing energy from hydroelectric dams and is building more nuclear plants than any other country. But China also burns more coal than the rest of the world combined and has accelerated mining and the construction of coal-fired power plants, driving up the country’s emission of energy-related greenhouse gases nearly 6 percent last year (2022), the fastest pace in a decade. And China’s addiction to coal is likely to endure for years, even decades.” China emits almost a third of all man-made greenhouse gases — more than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. Beijing’s focus on building more coal-fired plants at a cost of $1 billion apiece has alarmed experts working on global warming issues.
In his annual report to the Party Congress held in October 2022 at which he was given an unprecedented additional five-year term in office, President Xi Jinping emphasised energy security which meant continuing reliance on coal. China has the world’s largest reserves of coal. Notwithstanding the ready availability of coal, most large cities are investing in developing renewable sources. These investments, for instance, brought down the use of coal in Beijing by 95 percent in the decade through 2020. China is also a large user of natural gas; here foreign policy enters the picture. China’s imports of gas from Russia are increasing rapidly from pipelines connecting the two countries as well as shipped liquefied natural gas. In 2020, China nearly doubled its gas imports from Russia. However, Russian gas makes up just one percent of Chinese gas consumption.
An outstanding issue is whether a larger second pipeline known as Power of Siberia 2 will be built across Mongolia to China. Russia is eager to build this pipeline to reduce its dependence for gas sales to Western Europe. But China does not seem eager to increase its dependence on Russia. China is also relying on coal to meet demand when there are serious constraints on the supply of energy from renewable sources. However that notwithstanding, the country is using economic incentives to reduce reliance on coal, allowing electric utilities to charge far more per kilowatt-watt hour. Roof-top solar panels are also being installed in large numbers on residential buildings as well as offices. China is now installing more solar panels each year than the rest of the world combined, with the electricity generating capacity of new installations doubling each year. The Chinese National Energy Administration has mandated that new solar installations must have batteries although that would make the system more expensive. The goal is for solar panels to meet power needs during the day and store power in batteries to meet local needs for a few more hours after sunset.
But the world wanted China to do much more. It was to plead with the Chinese authorities to further reduce the burning of coal, that John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s environment adviser, went to Beijing to persuade the Chinese leadership to abide by the various commitments they had made in international climate meetings. During his tenure as the US Secretary of State in the Barack Obama administration, Kerry had persuaded then leaders of China to play an active role in the Paris Climate Summit held in 2015. His was the third senior-level visit by an American policymaker to Beijing. He followed Secretaries Anthony Blinken and Janet Yellen to the Chinese capital but came back empty-handed.
However, the fact that the two countries were talking again gave hope. Analysts working in the area of climate change agree that the speed with which China and the United States cut greenhouse emissions and transition to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy will determine whether Earth can avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. “There is no solution to climate change without China,” said David Sandalow, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations and now at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “The world’s two largest emitters should be talking to each other about this existential, threat.” Talks between the two nations were suspended when Beijing concluded that Washington was determined to keep China economically backward. But Presidents Biden and Xi agreed in a meeting in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022 to renew talks between their senior officials. The 2015 Paris agreement from which President Donald Trump walked out in 2018 was a landmark deal in which nearly all nations agreed to reduce emissions and stave off dangerous temperature rise, exits in part because the United States and China struck a deal. The United States agreed to cut emissions almost 50 percent in the 2020s and stop adding any to the atmosphere by 2050. China said its emissions will increase almost 50 percent by 2030 before beginning to fall by 2060.
John Kerry’s talks in Beijing took place as the world measured the hottest two weeks on record and the American envoy urged Chinese leaders to consider the heat scorching parts of China, Europe and the United States as signs of worse things to come if they fail to slash emissions of greenhouse gases. While Kerry’s long sessions with the senior leaders of China did not produce any new commitments from them, he was buoyed that the world’s two biggest polluters had restarted discussions. He insisted that he was not disappointed in the outcome, noting that just talking marked progress. “We had very frank conversations, but we came here to break new ground. It is clear that we are going to need a little more work,” he told the press after concluding his discussions.
While Kerry was in talks in Beijing, Xi said in a statement that his country will follow its own timetable regarding emissions reductions. “The pathway and means for reaching this goal, and the tempo and intensity must be determined by ourselves, and never under the sway of others,” he said, making clear the approach he and his country was following.