July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. The Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization said, “July has rewritten climate history, with dozens of new temperature records.” Temperatures soared around the world, including in China. A prominent Chinese scientist predicted that such heat waves would become the “new normal” in the decades ahead.

The first edition of the Guide to Chinese Climate Policy was released in July 2018 (the third hottest month ever recorded). My goal was to provide an objective, factual report on climate change policies in the world’s largest emitter. Since then, trends in China’s response to climate change have been mixed.

On the one hand:

  • In 2018, China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas, rose roughly 2.5%. This was the largest annual increase in five years.
  • In 2018, roughly 30 GW of new coal-fired power capacity was added in China (roughly 60 midsized coal plants). Capacity additions for coal-fired power plants continued at the same pace in the first half of 2019.
  • China’s public financial institutions continued to lead the world in financing new coal-fired power plants abroad.

On the other hand:

  • In 2018, China again led the world in renewable power deployment, adding 43% of the world’s new renewable power capacity.
  • In 2018, China again led the world in electric vehicle deployment. Roughly 45% of the electric cars and 99% of the electric buses in the world today are in China.
  • In 2018, seven of the world’s nine nuclear power plants that connected to the grid for the first time were in China.
  • In December 2018, the Chinese delegation played an important role in helping shape a global consensus on steps to implement the Paris Agreement at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP-24) in Katowice, Poland.
  • On several occasions, including in July and August 2019, China’s leaders publicly reiterated their commitment to fighting climate change.

Political tensions between China and the United States escalated dramatically during the past year. Challenges related to the China-US trade war focused China’s leaders on economic stability and energy security. Some observers noted that climate change appeared to be a lower priority as a result. Others noted that the Chinese government has used its commitment to limiting emissions and acceptance of climate science to draw contrasts with the Trump administration, positioning itself favorably in the eyes of many around the world.

Climate change is a big topic. It involves natural systems, energy systems, financial systems, political systems and more. Not surprisingly, China’s response to climate change is complicated and multifaceted. In some ways, China is a leader when it comes to fighting climate change. In other ways, China lags.

Yet this is clear: there is no solution to climate change without China. China’s transition to a low-carbon economy will have far-reaching consequences not just for China but the entire world.

The 2019 edition of the Guide to Chinese Climate Policy provides an updated resource for anyone interested in China’s response to climate change. 

- David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy