​China’s climate pledge in question on virus response, report says

China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak is raising uncertainties about its ability to meet 2020 emission goals that it has been well on track to accomplish, according to a new research report.

Before the virus hit, China was close to meeting 2020 pledges toward increasing clean energy and reducing carbon intensity that it agreed to by signing the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, according to a report published this week by Rhodium Group, an independent research provider based in New York. It would have been the first international climate commitment that China has demonstrated it could meet.

Now that’s being thrown into flux by the coronavirus outbreak. So far the economic slowdown brought on by government efforts to slow the spread of the disease has reduced emissions. But if China decides to stimulate an economy heading for its worst quarter on record by investing in pollution-intensive industries the playbook it followed after the 2008 financial crisis - emissions could come back with a vengeance.

Based on very early data, it looks like the most emission-intensive parts of the economy are the hardest hit so far. If this trend holds, the carbon intensity of the economy will continue falling in 2020,” Rhodium researchers Mikhail Grant and Kate Larsen said in the report. “If, however, Beijing responds with a large property and construction-heavy stimulus package, the resulting increase in cement and steel production could increase carbon intensity.

When China signed the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, it pledged that by 2020, the share of non-fossil fuel sources in its primary energy demand would increase to 15 per cent and the carbon intensity of its economy would be 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels. In 2019, it was on the cusp of meeting those goals, with non-fossil energy sources increasing to 14.9 per cent and carbon intensity falling 45.1 per cent , according to Rhodium.

China’s response to the virus will determine whether it will cross the finish line after being so close. If China’s economic output drops faster than emissions, the carbon intensity will grow, a big concern given that China’s economy is expected to grow at the slowest rate on record this year after large-scale industrial shutdowns and transportation curbs.

A stimulus plan designed around property and construction would also boost emissions intensity and coal’s share of power over the course of the year, according to Rhodium. Or China could direct stimulus toward clean energy, speeding its way to the climate goals, the researchers said.

China’s success in its Copenhagen goals could also presage its commitment to strengthening the targets it set at the 2015 Paris climate summit. It promised to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and increase the role of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to 20 per cent .

Countries are expected to upgrade those 2015 goals with even bigger commitments before this year’s United Nations climate conference held in Glasgow, which is seen as the most important summit since Paris and a vital opportunity for the world to address the crisis. Now environmentalists worry that the economic interruption created by the virus will impact the ability of major emitters, including China, to deliver a more ambitious goal.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P

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