Climate, COVID-19 and China

As the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world, some have seen a silver lining in a reported decrease in carbon emissions and pollution levels. 

However, as China and other countries in Asia recover from the worst of the epidemic there are worries that air quality improvements will be short-lived as economies struggle to rebuild. Short-term economic growth will be at the expense of long-term environmental benefits, it is feared.

As a first mover in post-COVID-19 recovery, China has the unique opportunity to revive its economy in a way that takes climate change into account, setting a precedent for other countries.

The economic slowdown caused by measures to contain the pandemic has resulted in a direct, positive effect on the environment in China. Satellite images from NASA have shown a dramatic drop in pollution in the past few months, with the Yangtze River Delta region around Shanghai seeing a particularly dramatic reduction in pollution. 

By the first week of March, coal use in Chinese power stations hit a four-year low, domestic flights have fallen by up to 70%, output of key steel products was at its lowest in five years, and official statistics suggest that output across key industrial sectors decreased by up to 40%. Overall, scientists have found that the measures to contain COVID-19 cut at least a quarter of China’s greenhouse gas emissions in just two weeks in mid-February. 

There was hope that the virus would prove to be a wakeup call for Chinese policymakers. However, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) slashed solar and offshore wind subsidies by half, regulators seem to be considering relaxing some emissions standards to support the hard hit automobile sector, and the government is working on approving 23 GW of new coal fired power capacity. China was already on this path even before the COVID-19 outbreak, with some suggesting that coal power would give China the edge in its trade war with the US.  

If China indeed rolls back its low-carbon transition, the consequences will have global impact. The nation is considered to be the flag bearer of international climate policy, since the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

The international climate movement is already shaky and US elections later this year will be pivotal in understanding the future of American engagement in global agreements on emission cuts. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just drastically relaxed rules removing liabilities for polluters for an undetermined period during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

On Wednesday Britain announced that this year’s pivotal climate negotiation (COP26) in Glasgow will be postponed until next year. This may actually give governments time to reflect and scaleup climate ambitions depending on the commitments of the next US president. 

Despite evidence suggesting that China is taking a step backward in its green policies, there is some optimism after remarks by President Xi on his visit to Yucun, a village in Anji county of Zhejiang province on Monday. “The environment itself means the economy. If you protect the environment, you will receive environmental rewards,” Xi said. 

With top-level commitment still seeming to be intact, it is important for commentators to wait until China finalises its next five-year plan later this year before coming to any conclusions on the future of its growth policy. It will be critical for China to draft economic and social policies with green finance and climate action at their core. 

China needs to lead by example. It is imperative for the much-anticipated National Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) to be rolled out on time in 2020, enhance its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and green the Belt and Road Initiative

As host of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming in October, China also has the opportunity to expand its recent national ban on wildlife trade and consumption into a worldwide ban. 

Although the COVID-19 epidemic itself might not be directly linked to climate change, this ban suggests that China acknowledges the integral connection of human, animal and ecosystem health. 

Humanitarian needs are presently the priority for the world. Nonetheless, the climate crisis also needs to be urgently addressed, as its consequences will have far greater impact on our ecology, economy and society into the future. 

How China pursues the revival of its economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will be closely watched. This is a unique leadership opportunity for China to foster innovative policymaking centered around climate action that will be an example for other countries to follow. 

Rastraraj Bhandari is currently pursuing a Masters in Economics and China Studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. 

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