By Leif Johnson
Despite the denunciations of human rights abuses, intellectual property theft, trade war attacks, and increasing military encirclement, China seems to agree with its Western tormentors on climate change.
Both the U.S. and China have assigned top level diplomats (John Kerry, Xie Zhenhua) to negotiating carbon emission reduction. Both nations have specific bureaucracies designed to conduct climate negotiations.
China signed the 2015 Paris Agreement that stipulated that each signatory voluntarily declare when they shall become “carbon neutral” (no net additional carbon into the atmosphere). In late 2020 Chinese President Xi promised to make China carbon neutral by 2060 and reduce emissions after 2030. In fact, the U.S. and China had agreed, prior to the 2015 Paris meeting, to reducing carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GNP, by 60 to 65% for key energy intensive industrial sectors, while prioritizing renewable energy systems and reaching peak emissions in 2030.
The West scoffed at Beijing’s promises. As the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), America’s premier policy body, said in their journal Foreign Affairs:
“Beijing will offer only those climate promises that it would outright fail to fulfill, find itself unable to fulfill…or, less likely, fulfill merely by default if its economic growth slows more rapidly than expected.”
Further, the FRB notes, China added 30 gigawatts of coal fired plants in 2020 alone, while it has another 200 gigawatts (about 100 large coal fired units) in various stages of construction or planning. Foreign Affairs suggests that China is using climate change “as a smoke screen for a more calculated agenda”, trading insincere promises for concessions from the West.
If China cannot meet its announced goals, Foreign Affairs proposes that the West, led by the U.S., should build a coalition of “like-minded partners” to compel China to reduce carbon emissions.
Actually, despite Foreign Affairs’ claims, China is a good candidate for reducing its carbon emissions, and even achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. The long term reason is that China is moving away from a carbon based economy. Between 2018 and 2019, China added 331 gigawatts of power (about 150 large generating stations), but the mix of fuels was rapidly evolving. Thermal power (coal, oil, gas, biomass) increased by 2.4% followed by hydro at 5.8%. The big jumps were nuclear, 18.2%; wind, 10.9%; and solar, 26.5%. These increases represent only the one year from 2018 to 2019. Currently, China has the largest installed capacity of both solar and wind power in the world, and is also the largest producer of both solar and wind generators.
As a percentage of total energy production, 81% was generated from coal in 2007; that figure today is only 64%. With the Power of Siberia II natural gas line from Russia coming on line before 2025, a conversion from coal to natural gas will reduce carbon emissions by 40%. Meanwhile, Shandong Province, which is now largely nuclear powered, is planning extensive use of hydrogen fuel.
Energy analysts have predicted that China will double its nuclear power output every ten years.
Thus, regardless of what the Chinese leadership believes the role carbon dioxide plays in climate change, the primary reason for China converting to non-carbon energy sources is its rapid economic development. It is moving to fuels that are closer to end usage, militarily more secure, and increasingly cheaper, cleaner and more abundant.
Ultimately, but surely well before 2060, the country will acquire the technology to use fusion energy, the energy of the sun. On May 28, the Chinese news agency Xinhua announced that a Chinese fusion reactor had reached a plasma temperature of 160 million degrees Celsius, heralding “the foundation for China to build its own nuclear fusion station.”
The press release concludes, “ As opposed to fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, which are in danger of being exhausted and pose a threat to the environment, raw materials required for the “artificial sun” are almost unlimited on earth. Therefore fusion energy is considered the ideal ‘ultimate energy’ with the potential to help China realize carbon neutrality.”
It is clear that China is open to climate negotiations and is confident it will reach carbon neutrality by 2060. But there is an immediate and thorny issue in serious dispute: China’s opposition to any agreement that damages Third World economies.
America’s position vis a vis China is that climate change is a “stand alone” issue not to be connected with China-U.S. relations generally, nor have any conditions attached.
China’s does not make any demands regarding China-U.S. relations. The one condition that China makes is that any accord must not be detrimental to the economic development of the poorer nations of the world. China’s broad reaching Belt and Road initiative is a corner- stone of Third World development. China will not allow any policy that damages this multi-billion dollar effort.
One such economically destructive policy affecting the poorer countries would be the proposed “carbon tax” This is a world-wide tax on carbon contained in a product or used in its manufacture. It would be collected domestically and at the borders of nations.
If levied today, the advanced economies of the West would pay considerably more carbon tax than underdeveloped Third World countries. Since the poor countries emit less carbon, they could sell their “carbon credits” to more “polluting” rich countries. This—as its proponents often proclaim—would give the poor countries upwards of tens of billions a year in revenue.
But the paradox is, that if a Third World nation began to develop its economy it would increase its emissions of carbon dioxide, thereby reducing its allocation of “carbon credits”. The more a poor nation developed its power generation, industry, and transportation, the fewer carbon credits it would receive. Only by remaining underdeveloped could that country retain the revenue from selling its carbon credits to rich nations. The Western populations would get heavily taxed and the underdeveloped countries wouldn’t industrialize.
The winners in this great reshuffling are the Western financial interests. The huge cash flows stemming from the carbon tax would provide liquidity that might preserve the tenuous solvency of the Western financial system. In addition, the poorer nations might be compelled to use their carbon credits to pay back loans from the IMF/World Bank and other banks in the advanced sector.
The dispute over Third World development has no easy resolution. The West needs the carbon tax cash flow to prevent a meltdown of its financial system and the Chinese will not abandon its Belt and Road and other economic plans for development of the poorer nations. Each side sees its position as fundamental to its national interest.
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