The next international conference devoted to climate, the COP 24, will be held in Katowice, in Poland, at the beginning of December. U.S. withdraw from the Paris Agreement will give to China a predominant position and will allow the emerging countries voice to make it heard. The threat regarding climate change, which is becoming more and more difficult to challenge, is the CO2 and greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere. It is on this issue that divergences are increasing between developed countries and the other participants to the discussions. Each one responsibility is not the same in the current situation. The accumulation of emissions is definitely the consequence of industrial activity and consumer habits of the first ones for a century and half. It is on them, are pretending the second ones, that most of efforts must be concentrated, even if the emerging countries growth is now contributing more, years after years. But to dictate to them the same effort than to the countries which are liable for the past accumulated stock is unfair. They won’t be able to accept to be imposed constraints incompatible with the continuation of their development.
The Paris Agreement did not really include constraining dispositions and it was taken care not to decide, in a definitive way, to resolve this debate but it could be at the center of the discussions which will occur in Poland. The choice of this country is rather surprising because nobody, and certainly not the European Union, has succeeded in forcing it to reduce its own emissions generated by its coal-fired power plants which constitute, as in Germany, the most important share of their electricity mix. The Paris Agreement had left to each participant the possibility to choice the technique it uses to measure its emissions and to determine its own objectives. In Katowice, it would be debated and decided to adopt a unique calculus method regarding emissions. It must be also decided if it is asked to each country to make the same effort of if it is accepted that these efforts will take into account the level of development of each one and the amount of its past emissions. It is on these issues China intervention could be important if not decisive.
Until now, the country has always pleaded for a differentiated approach but in adopting, for itself, very ambitious measures. Since 2014, China has succeeded in dissociating its economic growth and its CO2 emissions. These ones remains stable during three years but have grown again in 2017 and probably also in 2018 at a 3% yearly rhythm. During that whole period, Chinese growth has been, as an average, between 6 and 7%. So the result has not been negligible but due to China weight on the world economy, an emission rebound at this rhythm makes almost impossible to reach the global objectives inscribed in the Paris Agreement. Until now, Beijing strategy has been concentrated on its power mix and on the reduction of the share of coal. This one is especially necessary since along with CO2, the coal-fired power plants are rejecting in the atmosphere massive quantities of harmful particles, which are making in some cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the air irrespirable during some period of the year.
At the beginning, in China, it was expected a lot from renewables, including notably solar. That has permitted to develop an industry which has become the world leader and whose competitiveness has made useless the recourse to subventions. They have been suppressed last summer. But that effort has not been enough to cope with a power consumption which was growing faster than the GDP, as it is the case since the beginning of this year (+8%). The launch of giant dams in the past, as the Three Gorges one, has not been more sufficient, as the rebound of an ambitious nuclear program which had been restrained after the Fukushima disaster. It is the very strong growth of natural gas demand which has permitted, as in the U.S., to slow coal consumption and to stabilize if not to reduce the emissions. The accelerated urbanization has generated the abandon of traditional domestic consumption of coal and wood. Power and gas networks were put in service. The construction of gas pipelines connecting Western and Northern provinces to Central Asia and Siberia and of LNG terminals has guaranteed China supplying and this move which results both from the will to be less dependent of polluting energies and of the transformation of the Chinese society will amplify in the future.
This orientation is especially important because other economic sectors will need in the future more electricity with at the first place is transportation. Huge investments have been done to give to the country a modern high-speed train network which will reduce the use of fossil fuels for transportation. There will be also the electric car utilization. Its success is much more guaranteed than in Europe and even more in the U.S., despite Elon Musk, where it will remain forever a marginal means of transport. The recharging issue is less acute because Chinese people are rarely making long distance trips by car. An enormous number of household are still looking after their first acquisition when, in developed countries, car market is mainly a replacement one. That changes buyers attitude, always aware of the value of their car when they resale it. It falls if technical progresses come as expected.
This strategic choice is supported by Chinese authorities who have the power, at the local level, to block registrations when the engine of the car doesn’t fit with their regulations. At last, the industrial stakes are considerable and that has not been missed by the political power, both regarding batteries manufacturing and the supply of indispensable rare materials. China is the biggest car market in the world. It lays on its manufacturers to capture positions outside of their country. The electric car is a way to achieve this objective and it would be surprising if nobody has thought about that in Beijing.
A less polluting electrification is also an answer to the development needs of the many emerging countries where China is investing. Its companies are taking participations in networks, in Africa and even in South America or they supply with power their neighbors like Pakistan through the construction of very high tension wires. These investments are financed under the large New Silk Roads program renamed Belt & Road Initiative. It is to say if China influence in the coming international negotiations about climate, with the absence of the U.S., will be determining.The country will put its whole weight to secure that new methods of calculus of emissions, closed to its own, will be adopted in order to get that the progresses accomplished by the country and measured with its own criteria are better recognized on the international scene.
Beijing will also look for obtaining that the concerns about climate change do not hamper the emerging countries growth. It will make itself their supporter, increasing in the same time its influence. “Soft power” is also very important when the issue is to salvage the planet.