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Paris COP21: China’s About-Face
Fuels High Hopes for Paris Talks

By Fred Pearce

02 Dec 2015

China changed everything. After years of sulking about climate change, China is right now diplomatically and technologically transforming the chances of halting climate change. U.S. President Barack Obama might wish for a deal here in Paris to be his own crowning legacy. But the truth is that this is China's ball.

Nobody knows the transformation better than the head of the Chinese climate delegation for the past nine years, Xie Zhenhua. He spent years pretending climate change was a rich-world problem that the rich world had to sort out. In Copenhagen in 2009, he was widely blamed for scuppering the talks. But

Getty Images
A worker installs silicon solar panels last month in China’s Shandong Province.
here in Paris he is quietly confident a deal is about to be done that will be in China's and the world's interests.

Speaking yesterday at a small event in the Chinese pavilion, he said: "China is entering a new normal of energy and resource conservation." He no longer insists that China has a right to develop along the dirty path chosen by rich nations. "We can seek a different way," he said, through "ecologically driven wealth generation."

And not just China. He predicted "a low-carbon pathway for the whole of mankind," one in which Chinese know-how is on offer to the world – whether the ever-cheaper solar panels now on sale in marketplaces across Africa, or in "south-south" aid projects to fight desertification.

"There has been an incredible change in China's approach in the past decade," said Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a U.K.-based non-profit that recently launched a report on China's low-carbon revolution. The world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases is now also the world's biggest investor in renewables. The recently announced new Five-Year Plan says China will have 300 gigawatts of wind and solar energy capacity by 2020, almost as much as Japan and Germany combined promise a decade later, in 2030.

In such ways, China is decoupling its greenhouse gas emissions trends from its economic growth. It promises to reach peak emissions by 2030. That announcement, formalized in a deal with President Obama in November last year, probably more than anything else gave more than 150 other nations the confidence to make their own emissions pledges here in Paris. It created the climate of optimism pervading the Paris talks.

The speed of China’s transformation in its energy production is such that the 2030 date for peaking Chinese emissions already looks conservative, according to Sam Geall, an analyst of Chinese energy trends at the University of Sussex in the U.K. Emissions could peak by 2025, maybe sooner, he said here. Several major Chinese cities are announcing imminent peaks of their own.

China's retreat from coal is already thought to be largely responsible for a stalling in the previously inexorable increase in global CO2 emissions in 2014, despite global economic growth of 3 percent. There is growing interest in whether it can repeat the trick in 2015.

China's sheer size means that whatever it does sends shockwaves around the world. The rise of renewables in China threatens a huge downturn for the coal trade that could hasten what many here believe should be a global moratorium on all new coal investment.

This is a dramatic U-turn. For much of the past decade, China was building coal-fired power stations at a rate of two per week. It was responsible for most of the sharp rise in mining and burning of coal globally — a growth that fueled a rapid increase in global carbon dioxide emissions. "But China is now building the clean-energy equivalent of one coal-fired power station every week," says Black.

Coal burning in China is reportedly down by 5 to 8 percent this year, leaving dozens of coal-fired power stations idle and coal imports down 35 percent, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. As a result, billion-dollar coal mine projects are being mothballed throughout the world.

Today, the Chinese delegation held an international seminar at its conference pavilion to discuss how other developing countries can follow its lead to "early peaking" of their emissions. Its co-host was the U.S. think tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute. The message is being heard. African nations announced on Tuesday plans for 300 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030, which would triple the continent's current total electricity generating capacity.

All this may surprise environmentalists used to hearing bad news about China's ecological impact on the world. As it scrabbles to grab the world's metals, timber, and other resources, China often leaves behind damaged landscapes and aggrieved locals.

The truth is that China hasn't suddenly gone altruistic. There is self-interest at the heart of its new approach to energy. It must curb coal burning, which is killing a million Chinese citizens a year from smog. And it calculates that it can boost economic growth by selling cheap solar panels and wind turbines to the world.

China believes it is both stimulating and capturing the biggest new manufacturing market in the world. "For that reason it now wants a strong deal here," said Isabel Hilton, CEO of the web site ChinaDialogue, speaking here on Tuesday.

The greening of China has a hard edge. And it has its own diplomatic agenda here at the climate conference. In particularly, it is expected to push strongly for the rich world to pay for accelerated investment in renewable energy in developing countries — in the certain knowledge that most of that money will be spent on Chinese-made equipment.

But whatever its mix of motives, China clearly is no longer the laggard on climate change.

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and will be reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.

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