China is the world leader in emissions of heat-trapping gases, and the Chinese government is taking many steps to reduce emissions, including policies that have made China the world's leader in renewable energy and electric vehicles. But other Chinese policies are working in the opposite direction, including support for coal-fired power plants.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless is joined by David Sandalow, the inaugural fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy and the author of the 2019 edition of the Center’s Guide to Chinese Climate Policy, a book that helps readers navigate the complexities of China’s response to climate change.
David is the founder and director of the Center’s U.S.- China program and co-director of the Energy and Environment Concentration at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. He’s also been a distinguished visiting professor in the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University.
Before that, he held several senior positions at the White House and the U.S. Departments of State and Energy.
David and Bill got together to talk about the guide, the original version of which was published in 2018. Among the topics they discussed were major commitments that China has made in response to climate change and how the nation is following through on them. They also talked about some contradictory trends in China, such as its simultaneous construction of coal and renewable energy power plants.
And at a time when putting a price on carbon is a hot topic in the U.S. and other countries, David explains what China is doing about it.
View the Transcript
Bill Loveless: China is the world leader in emissions of heat trapping gases and the Chinese government is taking many steps to reduce emissions, including policies that have made China the world's leader in renewable energy and electric vehicles. Other Chinese policies are working in the opposite direction, including support for coal fired power plants. Hello, and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. From Washington, I'm Bill Loveless. Our guest today is David Sandalow, the inaugural fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy, and the author of the 2019 edition of the Center's Guide to Chinese Climate Policy, a book that helps readers navigate the complexities of China's response to climate change. David is the founder and director of the center's US-China Program and co-director of the Energy and Environment Concentration at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. This month, he's also a distinguished visiting professor in the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University in China. Before coming to Columbia, he held several senior positions at the White House and the US Department of State and Energy. David and I got together to talk about the guide, the original edition of which was published in 2018. Among the topics we discussed were major commitments that China has made in response to climate change, and how the nation is following through on them. We also talked about some contradictory trends in China, such as its simultaneous construction of coal and renewable energy power plants. And at a time when putting a price on carbon is a hot topic in the US and other countries, David explains what China is doing about it. Well, here's our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. David Sandalow, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.
David Sandalow: Thanks, great to be here Bill.
Bill Loveless: David, you're well known at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and from work that you did previously in the government, including the work for the Energy Department in the past. But for those who might not know you quite as well, how did you get into this line of work?
David Sandalow: Now, Bill, I've been interested in China since I was a child. When I was in high school and college, it was impossible for Americans to travel to China, the two countries didn't have diplomatic relations. Then right around the time I was graduating college in the late 70s, diplomatic relations were restored. And I started looking for a way to travel to China and wasn't easy, the Internet didn't exist back then. But I found an exchange program run by Columbia Law School and in the summer of 1981, I traveled to Shanghai and lived there on that exchange program and it was a tremendous experience. It was completely different Shanghai than the one today, that's summer there was exactly one place in the entire city that we could call home and so we would take a cab to the Peace Hotel every weekend, and call home. But from that time, I was always fascinated with China as I worked on energy, environment and climate issues for much of my career I've always been especially interested in China. In the 1990s, I had the privilege of serving on the National Security Council staff, in 1998; I joined President Clinton on a trip to China and helped to organize an event with environmental leaders in China in Guilin, which was extraordinary experience. In the next decade, I spent some time looking at US-China relations and energy and climate issues, wrote a small monograph on how US and China could work together on climate change issues, and then had the privilege of going into the Obama Administration and helping try to implement some of the ideas that I had just recommended, and spent a lot of time in the Obama Administration working on managing US-China relations in the energy area.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, right. So it's been so timely. I mean, you've really seen this era of change in China, as well as in US relations with China over the several decades now.
David Sandalow: That's exactly right. Look, the change has been extraordinary. I mean, the growth in China in my adult lifetime has been, you know, really unprecedented in human history, extraordinary economic growth. With that has come extraordinary energy usage, incredible increase in energy usage and impacts energy markets, and incredible impacts on the global climate. What so, back in the summer that I first traveled to China, the per capita emissions in China were roughly the level of North Korea and Bhutan today. Now, China is by far the leading greenhouse gas meter in the world, right so the change has been amazing.
Bill Loveless: It is extraordinary, you know, I think this guide is particularly timely, you know, I don't know about you, but I think when I look at China, I'm struck by what often can it--looks like a contradiction and trends, the government is so apparently strong and its policy statements on addressing climate change. It's an extraordinary leader in fields such as Renewable Energy, and yet they're still building coal fired power plants at a pretty good clip.
David Sandalow: That's exactly right. I'd say acouple of points. First, the record is mixed. China is doing very significant things that help address climate change and just, you know, to tick off a few of them. Once again last year, China led the world in solar power deployment, 45% of the solar panels built in the world in 2018 were in China. China again led the world in Wind Power, again led the world in Hydro Power. More than half of the electric vehicles sold in the world last year were in China, 99% of the electric buses in the world today are in China. We had a wonderful workshop a couple days ago here in New York convened by the Center on electrification of New York City's buses and New York City has a goal of electrifying all of its bus fleet, which is tremendous. We're working to facilitate that. New York City has 10 electric buses on the roads. In China, there are 500,000 that have been put on the roads in roughly the past five years. And then this is more controversial, but they're in some quarters, but there were nine nuclear plants opened in the world last year, seven of them were in China. So China is leading the world in the nuclear power deployment as well.
Bill Loveless: But at the same time they are building coal fired power plants.
David Sandalow: Precisely. As you say, and last year, China added 30 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity is about 16 mid-sized power plants and very significantly, China is the leading financier of coal fired power plants around the world. There are really only three countries in the world today that are using public money to finance coal fired power plants, Japan, South Korea and, China. And China leads by far, the Belt One Road Initiative, which is really a framework for a lot of China's foreign policy, is leading to the construction of coal fired power plants in dozens of countries.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, so then what do we make of that? I mean, how serious is the commitment? I mean, you can't get away from those extraordinary numbers you pointed out when it comes to renewables and electric vehicles and that sort of thing. But then we see what the coal fired power plants. It's a big country, I guess it's just has a lot going on and a lot of reasons for doing what it's doing, but how do we sort out what appears to be those contradictions?
David Sandalow: Well, I think here's one framework. First, let's start by observing that there are no known climate deniers in the Chinese government and none with any observable impact on policy from the top the Chinese leadership, you know, talks about climate scientist’s belief and the threat the climate change poses. By the way, China is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, particularly sea level rise, and other aspects too. The Eastern Sea coast of China is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, there 550 million people in coastal provinces. So, big vulnerability there and the Chinese leadership recognize that is working to address it, strong supporters of the Paris Agreement. At the same time, the priority of the Chinese government has been and will continue to be economic stability and economic growth. And then fighting air pollution is also a very high priority. So in many ways, fighting climate change is something that can be embedded within those two priorities and the Chinese government is working to make low carbon development part of its development path. But it's not, just like in many countries around the world fighting climate change is important, but it's often not the highest priority.
Bill Loveless: Hence, that's why you'll still see these coal plants going up in some parts of the country.
David Sandalow: Yeah, I think the reasons for the continued construction of coal plants include, you know, the power of coal industry in China includes the lack of market based signals in the Chinese economy. It's interesting to--well, one of the ironies here is that in China today, the capacity factors in coal plants, the percentage of usage is 50%, roughly or less, they're not used nearly to capacity, but still more being built and that overcapacity is something that exists in many different Chinese industries, not just in power generation, and it's partly a product of lack of market based signals that we're more familiar with here in the West.
Bill Loveless: You mentioned market signals and China is putting a price on carbon emission something that's not happening here in the United States. They're trading programs, some dating back to 2013 that are operating in eight cities. There's a nationwide trading program for the power sector that was launched in at the end of 2017. Again, these are some of the details that you provide in the guide. How well organized are these initiatives and how likely are they to succeed?
David Sandalow: Really important question, I'm glad you raised it. Just, you know, as background Chinese Government has had pilot programs for emissions trading for carbon dioxide since 2013 or so in eight different provinces and is launching a national program as you said that the regulations for power.
Bill Loveless: And these are limits on you mentioned on?
David Sandalow: On carbon dioxide.
Bill Loveless: On carbon dioxide.
David Sandalow: Yeah, there was experience in previous years with trading for sulfur dioxide and some other pollutants, but the carbon dioxide trading started in pilot programs. By the way, those pilot programs had about 250 million people living in those areas. It's pretty big set of pilots, but the national program for power sector trading is to be launched next year and there are a number of challenges that are being encountered. One of them is the lack of data among some of the facilities, and then just kind of coming up with adequate set of regulatory mechanisms to make this work. There is a commitment to putting a price on carbon in China. There has been about a billion dollars of trades of carbon dioxide permits over the course of the past several years as an active market and you can, you know, go online and figure out where permits are trading and how much, I think we don't yet know how important a factor this is going to be in controlling emissions in China. There are some people who think it's going to be important, others who are pretty skeptical, who think that system is never really going to play a big role and final point, one important detail or facet of the program the Chinese Government has not yet announced is what the cap will be or what the--how much emissions will be controlled by
Bill Loveless: And how soon might that?
David Sandalow: Presumably by next year as part of the Power Structure Program, but we don't know that for sure.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and transparency. I mean, transparency must be an issue and data and the availability of good data. It's always an issue in China, right? Regardless of the longstanding economic issue, talk about raiders, is that good data?
David Sandalow: No question and then by the way, our colleagues Noah Kaufman and Jonathan Elkind,Center of Global Energy Policy written a very good piece on this for anybody who's interested in this issue.
Bill Loveless: But, you know, as we've seen the big debates going on at the United Nations in New York. We have a UN meeting on climate change coming up in Chile in December. How is China shaping up today as a leader, let's say, on climate issues, especially in comparison to the United States, given how this government has backtracked from the Paris accord since President Trump took office.
David Sandalow: So you know, Chinese played a very central role in the UN climate negotiations for a long time. From the beginning, China has argued for a principle called common but differentiated responsibilities, saying the developing countries have responsibilities, but they needed to be the function--the responsibilities need to reflect the level of development of those countries. And for a long time that prevented the United States and China from really finding any type of common ground or any meaningful type of common ground in the negotiations, but that was overcome in a very dramatic way. And 2014 when President Obama and President Xi Jinping reached a bilateral agreement, the two countries announced targets together, announced the intent to cooperate in reaching a global agreement, and many observers say that was fundamental to the Paris Agreement, that was breached a year later. So this type of cooperation between US and China is now impossible. We've seen it happen, has important impacts now, with the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement are to be more precise, the announcement by the president of an intent to withdraw, gave China an enormous opening on the global stage.
Bill Loveless: And how have they taken advantage of that?
David Sandalow: They have underscored that they remain committed to this fight, and that they're going to keep moving forward with their commitments under the Paris Agreement and with their commitment to work with other countries on this and in the eyes of other countries around the world. This is elevated China and really cause problems with the United States in terms of the respect that we're receiving in other countries around the world. And President Xi Jinping has in a few high profile occasions delivered, including at Davos and other places, delivered remarks which kind of make clear that he's going to draw contrast with the United States in this regard.
Bill Loveless: And it seems as though he is truly, you know, drawing those contrasts we've seen, certainly from coverage and all of some of these events involving the Chinese Government, but how effective have they been? I mean, what measures do you use to determine that China is having an impact in the absence of the United States?
David Sandalow: Well, look, I think there's an answer in terms of the negotiations and an answer in terms of emissions overall, to that question. I think, in the negotiations, China played an important role in the last run in negotiations agreeing shaping something called the Paris Rule Book and reaching compromises that will lead the rest of the world to move forward on this, so I think they've been pretty influential in that way. In terms of emissions in terms of what the atmosphere sees, there's good news and bad news. The good news is about starting around 2014, Chinese emissions actually stopped increasing for a couple of years. They've skyrocketed, Chinese emissions tripled between 2000 and 2013, just extraordinary rise in emissions.
Bill Loveless: And this was because of the industrial growth and
David Sandalow: Exactly right. During that period, there's extraordinary economic growth extraordinary driven by largely, you know, industrial growth, as you say and emissions skyrocketed, but around 2014 emissions started to level off or according to some leading estimates even declined, and they declined as a result of a number of factors, there was there's a shift from heavy manufacturing to services in China. In the economy, there's the growth of clean energy, renewables and then nuclear power was taking up some of the energy. A lot of industrial energy efficiency measures were coming into play and then there was a cyclical downturn in some heavy industries. So all those factors led to an actual, you know, leveling off or decline of emissions until last two years when they started to pick up again. So last year, unfortunately, Chinese emissions increased by the largest amount in five years by two and a half percent
Bill Loveless: And that was because of weather or?
David Sandalow: Yeah, so it was, I think the two factors that I've seen that explain it most are one, there was a return and some of these industries that had a downturn, they once again growing some of the Heavy Industries, and then yeah, a number of extremely hot and extremely cold days, which led to more energy usage in China. And so those factors that increase in emissions, we'll see what happens next year.
Bill Loveless: I mean, one of the goals in Beijing is a commitment to to peak co2 emissions by 2030.
David Sandalow: Yeah, they have to peak by 2030, so that is the first of four goals of the Chinese Government announced in connection with the Paris Agreement, which was announced at that summit with President Obama, I talked about earlier. It's the one that gotten most headline because most headlines because it is the easiest to understand. And many observers believe the Chinese Government can meet that goal well ahead of 2030. That is that Chinese emissions will peak sometime during the 2020s, maybe early 2020s and never go up after that, we'll see.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and that's even despite the increases we've seen more lately.
David Sandalow: Yes, that's correct and, you know, there's been a debate about how meaningful that commitment is, obviously, really matters what level the emissions speak at, but actually changing the economy so that at some point, emissions stop increasing. It's going to be key to solving this problem.
Bill Loveless: What about the mix for their power generation? Among the various options they have coal, natural gas renewables, and nuclear power? I mean, what sort of mix do they have now. What sort of mix might they have a few years from now?
David Sandalow: China today is an extremely coal intensive power mix, about 65% of the electric power comes from coal. And that is been going down steadily and it will continue to go down, and that's going to be key to addressing the climate change issue. In power generation, it's being taken up by renewables and by nuclear into a smaller extent by natural gas. A big factor in terms of emissions overall in China is replacing coal based heating with natural gas in the North. There is a line going east to western China, above which there's historically been cold based heating and that has led to very severe air pollution and one of the major causes of air pollution in northern China, the largest and in the past couple of years, the Chinese Government has had a very ambitious program to replace that coal basically with natural gas. And China uses relatively less natural gas than most other countries; about seven and a half percent of primary energy is natural gas in China is compared to about 24% globally. So it's a lot of room to pick that up and so there's huge construction right now of natural gas infrastructure underway in China, mainly for heating.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and of course, China is looking overseas to get those natural gas supplies. It was beginning to tap into the United States exports of liquefied natural gas and of course, that's sort of been stymied by the trade difficulties between Washington and Beijing. What impact is that situation that this so called trade war between the two countries had on China's own efforts to cope with his energy needs and its climate concerns?
David Sandalow: The US-China trade war has slowed progress in fighting climate change, actually, not just in China, but also in the United States. I mean the first tariffs that President Trump imposed, were on solar panels and dishwashers at the same time. And that tax on American's purchase of solar panels has slowed the growth in solar power industry and actually cost lots of jobs. In China, the trade war has focused China's leaders in the eyes of many on economic stability, on energy security, and to some extent, those overlapped with climate change goals, but I think to the extent that they don't, they've elevated those other two priorities in a way that may damage attention to climate change.
Bill Loveless: Big distraction, one for Beijing?
David Sandalow: It's clearly a major focus of Beijing leaders. Now there's some ways in which focus on energy security, for example, it's very consistent with the fight against climate change, for example, electric vehicles. Right now, China i enormously dependent upon imported oil for its vehicle fleet. And that's a huge concern for China's leaders and is one of the reasons that China has such an ambitious electric vehicle policy. But in way, if their ways that they don't work together, then China's leadership is quite focused on economic stability right now and that's been a problem.
Bill Loveless: You know, that one of the big impressions I have as an outsider looking in on China is that they're very sensitive to social concerns and that's one reason they've addressed very aggressively the air pollution issue in Beijing and they just don't want people to get sort of up in arms over things. To what extent is that a concern for the government leaders when it comes to climate change?
David Sandalow: So it's huge air pollution, local air pollution is a huge issue in China today. China's air is terribly polluted in many, many cities. One of the signature promises of Xi Jinping when he came into office is to make China's skies blue again, and so many of the measures that fight local air pollution also contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, there's a lot of coordination, a lot of ways in which those two goals work together. There's some minor ways in which they don't, but mostly the steps that can be taken to fight local air pollution help to control greenhouse gas emissions and the chapter in the book that talks about this.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, right and again, I think what's so useful in the guide is there's a lot of detail on the developments over the years, a lot of numbers in there too, which I think is very helpful again, particularly when it comes to China because I think that's so often and sort of opaque
David Sandalow: And both of you know, for any listeners who would like to access the guided Chinese kind of policy can say there are three ways to do it. So one, you can go to Amazon, you can buy a paper copy on Amazon. Second, you can go to our website, which is chineseclimatepolicy.energypolicy.columbia.edu or just Google guide to Chinese Climate Policy. We have all of the content there on a website. And then third, you can download it, you can download all 160 pages. We've got some hyperlinks so you can navigate back and forth, but we're trying to make this information as accessible as possible.
Bill Loveless: You'll be back in China sometime soon.
David Sandalow: Couple weeks, yeah. I'll be teaching there in October.
Bill Loveless: What do you teach there?
David Sandalow: I teach a class called Clean Energy Transition in Tsinghua University; I'll be there for about a month doing that.
Bill Loveless: What do you want to do when you're in China and again, if you spend a fair amount of time there, you talk to people? I mean, you talk to people on campus at university, you talk to people in lots of places, restaurants, and other what sort of feedback, tell me what sort of feel you get when you talk to, let's say, the average person in China when it comes to this topic?
David Sandalow: You know, when feature of conversations that always strikes me is the enormous underlying interest in the United States of America, and the desire for friendship with the United States of America somebody particularly spending time at Columbia, now I often have conversations in China with people who are interested in coming to the United States to study at university or want their children to do that. I think there's enormous respect in China for the United States. It's a complicated relationship, because there's also mutual suspicion between the two countries. And one thing I find, you know, in the United States, I find that sometimes our template for thinking about China, for many people's template is they're going to feel our jobs and there's a lot of fear and suspicion on that grounds. The reciprocal attitude in China is people in China think, oh, the United States is trying to keep us from growing and keeping from developing, so there's mutual suspicion, but there's also just an enormous amount of interest and respect and often affection for the United States, among people I speak within China.
Bill Loveless: Now getting back to the Belt and Road initiative and the large extent to which China is investing in coal-fired power in developing countries. What, you know, I was listening to a podcast we had the other day with Jonathan Pershing on the podcast and former government official on these matters and, you know, he was saying there's a big lost opportunity here for the United States in these developing countries in terms of what it could be doing to promote clean forms of energy, you know, what do we make of that sort of competition or lack of competition maybe?
David Sandalow: The Belt and Road Initiative is hugely important in dozens of countries around the world and by the way, it's a global initiative that originally had the original vision or the name implies kind of something along the middle of Asia and the south of Asia, but Chinese media talk about projects in Latin America as Belt and Road Projects, so it's a global initiative and a lot of countries around the world are very pleased that Chinese entities and Chinese Government are supporting the development of infrastructure around the world is building. In many cases, good relations, in many cases, problematic relations, and there has been a lot of press about resentment against Chinese companies and because of labor practices, because there's been allegations, concerns about debt sustainability. So it's a complicated relationship in many countries, but in many places, Chinese companies are welcomed for what they're doing. I think the United States has an enormous opportunity to, in the years ahead, to rebuild the types of relations that we had around the world. And I hope that's something that we do, and I hope that we can work with countries to support their development in proactive ways and recognize that the growth agenda globally is something that benefits the United States and that stuff again, the topics beyond kind of Chinese climate policy and into US foreign policy, but I think there's enormous opportunity. I think we've gone in the wrong direction in the past couple of years on that, and that we should change, we must change in the years ahead.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. I mean, but do you think it's fair to say that China is interested in engaging in other countries on a climate agenda? You know, one, I mean, putting aside its investments in the coal power plants and all, I mean, it sees itself as having this leadership role? You know how effectively play that role going forward?
David Sandalow: A couple of pieces of that, so first, there is an official Chinese policy document called the guidance to promoting a Green Belt and Road put up by four different Chinese ministries, and it's the first time I read that document I thought, boy, this reads like Greenpeace wrote this document, it's so green. It remains a set of aspirations I'd say. It doesn't have implementation mechanisms and most of the investment under the Belt and Road Initiative has been pretty brown now. There were a series of really positive announcements about controlling energy usage and improving energy efficiency at the last Belt and Road forum and so I think the Belt and Road Initiative could be used to really promote green development. So far mostly hasn't been, but it's got enormous potential from that regard. One other point that’s related on this that I've observed that China has, and this goes to the diplomacy, China has historically seen itself as a leader of developing countries group in the international negotiations called the G 77 in China, which China has played a very important role in. Many poor developing countries are deeply threatened by climate change, certainly low lying Island states, but also many other countries and for those countries, the emissions coming from China are a big threat. And I think I have seen Chinese officials very concerned about the pressures that create in developing countries. I think that dynamic in which poor developing countries are concerned about Chinese emissions is a very important one diplomatically.
Bill Loveless: Getting back to that point on the change in US government policy and all and the Trump Administration's moving away from the Paris accord and that sort of thing. What sorts of discussions take place between the US and the Chinese Governments these days under those circumstances on this topic?
David Sandalow: You know, I'm not in those discussions, obviously, Bill and part of the loyal opposition today in the United States. I my sense is from the press, and from, you know, reports, I've gotten that climate change is almost a non-factor, if not a non-factor in the US-China discussions today. I mean, we obviously political tensions between the US and China have ratcheted up to a almost unprecedented level in the past year or two with those tensions mainly around trade issues and some broader geopolitical issues and security issues as well. The Trump Administration has been very clear that doesn't consider climate change to be an issue and my impression, is there just a non-factor in the discussions today. Now, important to highlight in that regard that US states are in a very different position and particularly California, but other states, as well, including state of Washington have some very active dialogues with Chinese provinces and some even the central government in Beijing about climate change issues and that cooperation has been very robust and continues and one of the things I often remind my Chinese audiences or counterparts when I'm there is that the relationship between the US Federal Government and US States is very different than the relationship between the Chinese Central Government and Chinese Provinces that nor state governments are, they don't report to Washington, they might be controlled by political leaders when the opposition party that they often are, so very different from the Chinese, very interesting dialogue happening at state level.
Bill Loveless: Yeah that might be the good topic for another guide for some time in the future. David Sandalow, thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange to discuss this important guide on China and the Chinese policies on climate change.
David Sandalow: Bill thanks for having me.
Bill Loveless: Well, that's our conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. You can buy a copy of the guide to Chinese Climate Policy on Amazon.com, or download it for free on The Guide To Chinese Climate Policy website. That is chineseclimatepolicy.energypolicy.columbia.edu. For more information on the center on global energy policy and Columbia Energy Exchange, go to our website at energypolicy.columbia.edu or visit us on social media at ColumbiaUEnergy. For Columbia Energy Exchange, I'm Bill loveless. We'll be back again next week with another conversation.