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Ambassador Zhang Ming on Climate Change: Deeds rather than Words
2021-11-15 17:40

On 10 November 2021, Ambassador Zhang Ming, Head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, sat down with Sam Fleming, Brussels Bureau Chief of the Financial Times (FT), and Andy Bounds, FT's EU correspondent, for an exclusive interview. Answering a question on climate change, Ambassador Zhang Ming made the following remarks.

Climate change is an issue of common concern for all countries. Chinese people are also quite concerned about it. It takes a very high place on the Chinese government’s agenda. China has been actively shouldering up responsibilities compatible with our domestic situation and making further endeavors to increase our self-initiated efforts. And in the video speech delivered by President Xi Jinping at the COP26, he said that in combating climate change, we need to uphold multilateralism, adopt pragmatic actions and continue to accelerate green transition. These three points are the priorities for the Chinese government in our fight against climate change and can also represent the consensus and common interest of the international community.

The Chinese side has already issued proposals and action plans concerning achieving our 2030 and 2060 pledges and has also come up with relevant road maps and timetables. The Chinese government submitted two important documents to the secretariat of the UN Convention Framework on climate change recently, came up with our latest NDGs, and also put forward our long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.

China has made a lot of concrete actions in this regard. Currently, the share of non-fossil fuels accounts for almost 16% of our total energy consumption. When it comes to electricity production using renewable energy, China also ranks first around the world. And in building up forests, Chinese people have also made important contributions. In the past two decades, over one-fourth of the newly added green spaces around the world come from China. A batch of large-scale photovoltaic power plants with a combined installed capacity of over 30 million kilowatts are under construction.

China is still a developing country and we were only able to solve the problem of absolute poverty last year. At this stage, our emissions fall into the category of survival emission instead of luxury emission as in developed countries. For us to achieve any goals, we need to have a fair platform. In combating climate change, the fair platform we have is the common but differentiated responsibilities. Frankly speaking, I find that many developed countries tend to disregard this principle in recent years and I don’t find this a very good trend. Because without a fair platform, it will be hard for us to accomplish anything.

And you mentioned that China did not sign the agreement to phase out coal power plants. I want to further clarify that the goal promised by China is to peak its emission in 2030. In the period leading up to this goal, we need to not only transition our economy but also our energy structure. So China these days has been focusing on developing clean energy and gradually substituting fossil fuel energy. Such is our path to solve the problem of climate change. Since China is a country with a 1.4 billion population, this process will inevitably be a very gradual one, just like turning a giant ship in the sea will also take a long time and the ship needs to go around a very big circle.

That said, we’ve made important achievements in this regard. As mentioned previously, the share of non-fossil fuels accounts for almost 16% of our total energy consumption. Meanwhile, coal only accounts for less than 60%. The number was actually much higher a few decades ago, almost as high as 90%. Our goal is that during the period of the 14th five-year plan, we may contain the rise of coal consumption, and during the 15th five-year plan, we may gradually decrease the consumption of coal. It is hoped that 10 years later, which is in 2030, we will be able to peak our emission. Such measure is designed on the basis of scientific evaluation.

In dealing with the challenge of climate change, not only low carbon or green transition should be the keywords. Instead, I think development is also very important because, without development, we will not be able to achieve our climate goals.

China’s per capita carbon dioxide emission is not very high, indeed. It’s only half of the United States. And from a historical perspective, carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere is actually a result of long-term emissions in the past two to three centuries since the first industrial revolution. I came across this article which provides a set of data. It says that when it comes to the carbon now floating in the atmosphere, 220 billion tons come from China’s emissions and 410 billion tons come from the US. But we have to bear in mind that China’s population is almost four times bigger than the United States.

There is also another very helpful angle to approach the issue of climate change. We always talk about carbon emissions these days. But I think we also need to focus more on carbon consumption. Developing countries mostly do not have a very large consumer market, so the amount of carbon we consume is quite limited. But the case is quite the opposite in developed countries. The greenhouse gas emitted during production should be the joint responsibility of both producers and consumers.

By providing the above-mentioned opinions, I would like to clarify how to view different countries’ climate responsibilities in a more comprehensive and realistic manner. It is without doubt that China will follow our promises. I think it’s also fair for developed countries not to give too much pressure to developing countries. I think they need to have more self-reflection as to whether their climate promises are ambitious enough and are they able to deliver such promises?

There are claims that Chinese leaders’ absence from the COP26 is a mistake. I think some people have been out of the Paris Agreement for so long that they have little knowledge about the important progress made in the global fight against climate change with the support of China.

In 2015, China, the EU and the US, as important members of the international community, reached the Paris Agreement through cooperation. This was indeed very encouraging news. But not long after that, our friend from the US side decided to pull out of the agreement. Frankly speaking, US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement created a severe setback for our climate cause. We both spent the past few years in Brussels, so I think we can remember at that time how depressing and anxious the environment was in the city. I also remember clearly that later, at the 75th UN General Assembly, President Xi Jinping announced China’s 2030 and 2060 pledges and how Brussels was encouraged by it.

Since then, major economies of the international community have released their carbon peak and carbon neutrality goals. Our climate cause has once again picked up a strong pace. China has not been and will not be absent from global efforts against climate change. Our goals and road map are already set. And what we’re doing right now is to use concrete actions instead of empty talks to achieve our 2030 and 2060 goals. Lip service, shifting of blames and turning climate cause into a tool of confrontation for no reason are highly irresponsible actions that are also very harmful.

China will try its best to fulfill its commitments and deliver its 2030 and 2060 pledges. We also hope that developed countries can provide developing countries with capital, technologies and capabilities for their energy transition which are much needed. Now, what we need are deeds rather than words.

On a follow-up question regarding the call on China to set new targets, Ambassador Zhang said, I observe this tendency around the world these days that countries are trying to compete in terms of setting higher climate goals. To solve the problem of climate change, we need to adopt a science-based approach instead of making dramatic responses. China’s 2030 and 2060 pledge is entirely based on scientific evaluation. Can China be trusted in terms of its scientific capability if we change our goals set only last year?

We might need to pick up pace and set higher ambitions. But in doing so, we need to further cooperate in terms of capital, technologies and capabilities. Based on current commitments by countries around the world, I think we will be able to contain the rise of temperature within 1.9℃. But I think if countries can strengthen their cooperation in terms of capital, capabilities and especially technologies, the 1.5℃ goal will be attainable. If I set a goal today and then come up with a more ambitious goal tomorrow, and then an even more ambitious goal the day after tomorrow, you would think that I’m not an earnest person and I’m bragging about my capabilities. So I want to repeat this: deeds rather than words.

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