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China, Coal and COP24: Some Takeaways for India and the International Community; By Raakhee Suryapra

Image courtesy: Financial Post

Article No. 01/2019

Climate Change has been in the news recently. The reason for this was the recently concluded prolonged climate summit that started on December 3rd and ended in the early hours of Saturday, December 15, 2018, a day behind schedule with the unanimous adoption of the 133-page Paris Rulebook – rules to make the Paris Climate Accord a reality. Now the venue of the 24th annual conference of parties (COP24) of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was built over an abandoned coal mine and in the heart of Poland’s coal producing district, as well as the many negotiators and delegates representing the interests of Big Oil or powerful fossil fuel companies and countries producing it showcased the dichotomy inherent in such environmental conferences. The status quo of fossil fuel dependent global economies is preserved even as the doomsday clock counts down to a world reeling under irreversible climate change. Climate action, climate finance and climate justice, all take a backseat!

China has now emerged as what The Wired terms, “Both the Best and Worst Hope for Clean Energy [and Climate Action].” Mainly because the United States, under President Donald Trump, abdicated climate leadership, a cause close to the heart of previous Democratic president, Barack Obama. Another reason for China championing the cause of clean energy is plain economics. China is the main global manufacturer of solar panels, electric buses and electric vehicle batteries. It also has a very vibrant start-up electric vehicle industry. Thus it needs markets for its products as well as donning the mantle of a world leader.  Yet things with Chinese climate action leadership as with the COP24 are all not rosy.

The presentation by Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) intern Sri Ram Datla earlier this year, showcased the ground realities in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), where coal-powered thermal power plants were built in the largely natural gas dependent Pakistan. There wasn’t any effort made to promote renewables, only to export coal technology. This point was highlighted by C3S director Commodore Vasan in the virtual discussion on the emergence of China as a leader in the Renewable Energy sector. The research on China’s Global Energy Pursuits by C3S interns Akanksha S. and Indira T. reinforces this worrying trend that has seen the peaking of emissions within China but a co-ordinated policy-driven export of thermal power technology along the countries as part of BRI. Thermal power stations are being built with Chinese investments and loans, Chinese labour and Chinese technology in Africa and Asia, even when the regions fall well within the Sunshine Belt – countries ideal for solar power projects. Within China after a few years of conscious closure of coal-fired plants, recent news confirmed by Google Earth images indicate rebuilding of coal power plants.

The air pollution crisis in China as well as its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement saw the closure of many thermal power stations across urban China. Officials of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China who participated in the inaugural China-India Youth Dialogue during the discussions on “Trade, Investment, Entrepreneurship; Science and Technology Cooperation” highlighted the fact that they’ve witnessed visible improvement in air quality in cities like Beijing over the past decade as policy was implemented to limit polluting industries including the shutdown of thermal power stations. Chinese president Xi Jinping has also reiterated Chinese commitment to protecting the environment, promising a Beautiful China, with a “Green Development Model and Green Way of Life” at the 41st study group session on May 26, 2017 of the Political Bureau of the 18th CPC Central Committee. This also shows the commitment to clean energy within Chinese borders but business as usual abroad.

At international climate negotiations, China and India along with other developing countries and small island nations blocs have called for greater commitment from developed nations to climate finance, technology transfer and emissions cuts. Both China and India have increased renewable energy in their energy mix well beyond their Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs).

India’s lead climate negotiator Ravi Shankar Prasad at the closing of COP24 reiterated, “India wishes to express its strong reservation regarding the treatment of equity in the global stock-take decision.” The blocking of the welcoming of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report by United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reinforce the lack of interest in fossil fuel producing countries to change the status quo, when report after report prove that decoupling economic growth from fossil fuel use is central to limiting climate change.

Finally, while within China, even the army is employed is planting forests, overseas, Chinese thirst for natural resources as well as the monetary power of Chinese investments and investors is accelerating deforestation of equatorial forests. This is most visible in the Amazon, in Brazil and Ecuador according to the BBC, but is quietly creeps into the shores of South East Asian and its ancient forests, especially Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. As devastating as the emissions from fossil fuel use is, deforestation of forests that have trapped millions of years of carbon is a greater existential threat that follows indirectly overseas from Chinese policy.

At COP24, India and the EU reaffirmed commitment to the International Solar Alliance (ISA), yet national and international policy need to align to ensure climate justice and the co-ordinated decoupling from fossil fuels. The mainstay of power grids the world over, the transportation sector, even agriculture and the meat industry are fossil fuels. In order to halt global warming these vital industries need to move away from oil, coal and natural gas with conducive policies from countries and blocs with the largest emissions such as the United States, China, India and the EU.

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