- Without further Chinese progress away from coal, Paris Agreement goals cannot be delivered, UN environment agency warns
- China has invested more than any other country in renewable energy, but its investments in fossil fuels have also risen
China has invested more than any other country in renewable energy " committing US$758 billion between 2010 and the first half of 2019 " but failed the environment by burning more coal, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The agency, headquartered in Nairobi, said Beijing had also ramped up its investments in fossil fuel " burning about half of the coal used globally " making it the world's largest producer of coal power.
UNEP warned that continued production of coal would derail the world from achieving the goal set by the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
According to UNEP, China's annual carbon emissions nearly tripled in the past two decades and currently account for about one-third of the world's total.
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UNEP climate change coordinator Niklas Hagelberg said China's emissions per gross domestic product (GDP) had decreased but total emissions were still rising. He said unless global greenhouse gas emissions fell by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the temperature target may be a pipe-dream with catastrophic effects on the planet.
"Due to the country's share of total emissions, this target cannot be delivered without further progress in China," Hagelberg said, just a month after the world met in Madrid for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) to discuss how to slow the warming of the planet.
Hagelberg said COP25 did not deliver outcomes on key areas of the Paris Agreement to speed up climate action and to build multilateral solidarity and a joint effort to address climate change mitigation and adaptation.
The only positive outcome of the event had been the approval of the Gender Action Plan, which addressed concerns raised by women and gender groups at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, he said.
During COP25, Beijing led Brazil, India and South Africa to push for more funding from wealthier nations to deal with the climate change crisis. Zhao Yingmin, head of the Chinese delegation at the event, said developed countries "should provide new, extra support based on public funds."
Zhao, who is also China's ecology and environment vice-minister, said "developed countries' support should match the efforts taken by developing countries."
But China's energy mix has attracted admiration and condemnation in equal measure. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in green energy, including wind and solar, and is one of the largest markets for wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles. It also exports two-thirds of the world's installed solar cells.
However, the country is also facing growing criticism from environmental groups which accuse Beijing of slacking in its efforts to cut its reliance on coal for electricity. This comes at a time when countries such as Germany have considerably cut their coal-based power generation.
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China is also accused of funding multibillion-dollar coal projects in emerging markets, financing more than a quarter of all coal-fired power plants outside its borders. For instance, an environmental tribunal cancelled a licence awarded to a consortium, which included Chinese companies, for the construction of a US$2 billion coal-powered plant in Lamu, a town on the Kenyan coast.
"If we are to make real progress in our efforts to reverse climate change, the work must be collective," Hagelberg said.
"What we need is genuine transformation and decarbonisation of our economies, which means countries cannot reduce their national emissions simply by exporting production of carbon pollution to emerging economies," he said.
In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a strategy on energy consumption, supply and technology innovation which made China a leading example for energy development.
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Hagelberg said the development of low carbon and green energy systems were becoming key indicators for the country's transition, adding that its existing policies promoting renewables throughout China were already placing it at the top of global rankings. "Subsidies to support wind and solar power generation in China are some of the highest in the world," he said.
However, he warned that more leadership and action was required by all member states, including China, "to make real progress towards the Paris goals and a greener, healthier planet".
"We need to stop building new coal-fired power plants," Hagelberg said.
UNEP's 2019 Production Gap Report showed a major discrepancy between countries' stated ambitions to act on addressing climate change and their plans or investments in fossil fuel production. Countries are planning to produce 120 per cent more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with what is necessary to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, Hagelberg said.
"The situation is dire and the necessary peak and immediate reduction in emissions and in fossil fuel production, which has not been seen yet … no new coal plants should be built after 2020," he said.
Using figures compiled by the International Energy Agency, the UNEP report noted China was the world's largest coal producer, accounting for nearly half (43 per cent) of global production in 2017. China's coal production more than doubled from 2000 to 2013, dropping briefly from 2013 to 2016 before resuming growth.
The UNEP report also noted that China's plans and projections suggested coal production could increase to 3,900 tonnes in 2020 before slowly dropping, in line with government intentions to cap domestic coal use. However, since China currently accounts for nearly half of global coal production, its leadership in planning for a more rapid coal phase-out strategy remained central to the goals of the Paris Agreement, it said.
According to US-based research network Global Energy Monitor, China increased its coal-fired capacity by 42.9 gigawatts, or about 4.5 per cent, in the 18 months to June 2019. China's total coal-fired capacity stands at more than 1,000GW and it is constructing 121.3GW worth of power plants " nearly enough to power the whole of France.
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UNEP's Production Report Gap report said the US was the world's second-largest producer of coal, after China. The US for decades has encouraged fossil fuel production through tax incentives, regulatory reforms, undervalued leases of federal lands, low royalty rates, and research and development support. Other large coal producers include Russia, India, Australia and Indonesia.
On the US abandonment of the Paris Agreement, Hagelberg said UNEP's view was that "multilateralism is important and that together we are far stronger; we are encouraged that the vast majority of signatories to the Paris Agreement remain committed".
"We encourage all member states to stay at the table, keep engaging and keep negotiating for a cleaner, greener world," he said.
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