Cutting emissions in post-pandemic era


China has become an active player in global environmental governance and has increased its nationally determined contributions in response to climate change. Specifically, Beijing has pledged to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

China has begun to take actions to achieve these goals. In 2020, the country launched the formulation of the National Climate Adaptation Strategy 2035, focusing on improving overall guidance, communication and coordination, strengthening observation and assessment of the impact of climate change, and enhancing the ability of key areas and vulnerable regions to adapt to climate change. 

Together with other relevant guidance documents for different sectors, it established the “1+N” policy system, which is the top-level framework for the national low-carbon transition.

To further improve its energy structure, China is striving to expand the innovation and installed capacity of renewable energy. It has become the largest hydrogen producer in the world with relatively mature application in the automotive industry. For instance, the use of hydrogen energy vehicles was showcased at the Beijing Winter Olympics Games earlier this year. 

During the Games, hydrogen-powered vehicles were mainly used to ferry athletes, referees and other staff between venues. In addition, it was the first time in Olympic history that all the venues were powered by green electricity generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar photovoltaic. The widespread use of clean energy at the Olympics provided valuable experience for the future.

However, such achievements cannot offset the fact that China is still highly dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal, because it is still in its critical period of industrialization and urbanization. For this reason, the contradiction between objective energy demands and new development strategies for energy conservation and emissions reduction in China is particularly prominent.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the challenges to China’s decarbonization process. Since early 2022, the pandemic has brought uncertainties to many parts of China. Adjusting local epidemic prevention policies to achieve better balance between controlling the virus and ensuring the orderly progress of the country’s low-carbon transformation is a test for Chinese governments at all levels.

The pandemic has caused serious global economic deterioration. China is no exception, and the latest wave of the coronavirus has resulted in an economic downturn, with marked declines in the nation’s service industry, investment and consumption in recent months. 

Given all the economic challenges, stimulating domestic consumption is expected to play an important role in the country’s economic recovery in the post-pandemic era. However, there may be challenges for the development of green consumption. In this context, the government will need to address the possible conflicts between the expansion of domestic demand and the minimization of carbon dioxide emissions.

Another major challenge is related to the new dynamics in global geopolitics, especially Western political pressures and skepticism toward China’s mitigation and adaption policies and actions. While some Western observers admit that China has been an active participant in the global climate governance, many others, citing a lack of transparency, are doubtful of the credibility of China’s sustainability claims. 

Distrust and critical views have certainly always existed in global climate negotiations involving China and foreign countries, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has further undermined trust between China and some Western nations.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government has begun to seriously work toward a low-carbon transition and sustainable development mode, trying to keep a balance between economic growth and decarbonization. It has begun programs to fulfill its peak carbon emission and carbon neutrality commitments.

By the end of 2019, China had exceeded its 2020 climate action targets ahead of schedule. The share of non-fossil energy in the nation’s total energy consumption rose to nearly 15 percent in 2020. The installed renewable energy capacity in China accounted for about 30 percent of the world’s total. In 2021, China announced that it will no longer build new overseas coal power projects, demonstrating the country’s concrete commitment to climate action.

As climate-related issues such as funding shortages, geopolitics and technical barriers have been further magnified, China’s efforts in climate governance may face several uncertainties and daunting challenges in the post-pandemic era. In the coming years, China will need to double down on its domestic decarbonization effort and international cooperation to play a more impactful role in the global climate governance.

Zhao Wanyi recently graduated from a master’s program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Li Mingjiang is an associate professor at the same school. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.