Climate and Energy Transition

Invisible Hope: What China’s Climate Policy Can Bring to the World

By Sean Sweeney

Which country burns more than half of the world’s coal on an annual basis but is lauded as a “climate champion”? Answer: China. Which country is deploying wind and solar energy faster than any other country and is often depicted as a heinous climate villain? Answer: China.

In October 1939, Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” What, then, are we to say about China’s climate record? The main story up front is this: there is no riddle, nothing enigmatic or mysterious, about China’s climate policy. China is not a climate champion; neither is it a climate villain. For almost forty years, China has been a “capitalist roader.” It burns coal like there is no tomorrow. But it currently deploys renewable energy at levels that suggest it is perhaps far more concerned about tomorrow than some of its industrial competitors—including the United States.

Ecological Civilization
Is China’s climate policy significantly different from that currently being pursued by other developing countries? Again, the answer is both yes and no.

Currently, China’s climate policy is informed by the notion of “socialist ecological civilization” while pursuing what its government has termed “moderate prosperity.” Alongside the green dimension of its signature foreign policy project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s domestic and international economic policy follows the “green growth” logic of the advanced capitalist countries.[1] At the opening of the BRI Forum in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi endorsed both “green development” and trade liberalization as a way of sustaining China’s economic expansion.[2] At the twentieth Party Congress in October 2022, Xi declared, “We will boost green and low-carbon industries and improve the system for market-based allocation of resources and environmental

[China] burns coal like there is no tomorrow. But it currently deploys renewable energy at levels that suggest it is perhaps far more concerned about tomorrow than some of its industrial  competitors—including the United States.

Almost a quarter of a century after the ideas started to become fashionable at the global level, China has joined the “green growth” party. In the 1990s, rich countries concluded that the threat of climate change meant that economic growth must become progressively greener and, over time, reach a point when greenhouse gas emissions would start to come down while allowing growth to continue. How would this “decoupling” of emissions from growth occur? Supported by policy, technological breakthroughs of various types could, it was claimed, sharply cut resource use and thus “dematerialize” production. Then, one bright day in the hopefully not too distant future, emissions will start to fall even as the global economy continues to expand.[4]

China is . . . impaled on the horns of a distinctly capitalist “green growth” dilemma.

But there is no empirical evidence to support “decoupling.”[5] In terms of its depth and rigor, it is a fortune cookie theory that, under capitalism, has no chance of becoming a reality. Technological innovations may lead to the level of emissions rising more slowly for every additional unit of gross domestic product, but emissions will still be on an upward course at a time when climate scientists insist that they need to be rapidly falling.[6]

China is therefore impaled on the horns of a distinctly capitalist “green growth” dilemma. Whether green or not-so-green, economic expansion and rising energy use will continue to drive emissions upward; the only difference being the scale and pace of the increase. The day of “decoupling” will forever be in the future. China’s recently adopted “net zero by 2060” commitment will not be met. The same is true for the commitments to net zero made by the United States and sixty-four other countries.[7] A recent study captured the scale of China’s challenge: reaching  “net zero” will require cutting CO2 emissions by 9.3 percent every year beginning in 2030.[8]

History and Hope
Nevertheless, China’s climate policy has evolved in ways that makes its “net-zero” commitment very significant. It reveals the capacity of its leaders to turn political decisions into a long-term program of action. China’s leaders can also draw on the country’s decades-long experience with government-led planning that predate the turn toward the capitalist market in the 1980s. Government officials talk about sustaining growth and expanding international trade, but it is China’s legacy of basic socialist economic management that, from a climate perspective, makes the most interesting—and the most hopeful—part of the story.[9]

But discussion on China and climate has become so polarized (villain or champion?) that the country’s potential contribution to the fight against climate change is today mostly invisible.

This potential contribution lies not in the amount of renewable energy it deploys but in its capacity for economic planning and the still central role of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). And it is SOEs that are today behind the country’s deployment of renewable energy and green technologies, an issue we return to in the following sections.

The “Not Our Problem” Problem
In the 1990s, China insisted that climate change was a problem created by the North, and the North had no right to insist that China impede its own development when hundreds of millions of its mainly rural population were still poor.[10] Importantly, with its Beijing Declaration of 1991, China positioned itself as the voice of the developing countries on climate change.[11] The  Declaration insisted that poor countries “should not be obligated to undertake measures that might hinder development.”[12]

China’s . . . potential contribution lies . . . in . . . the still central role of state-owned enterprises.

Nevertheless, China ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1993, a year after its launch. China insisted that developing countries should not be subject to binding emissions limits under the UNFCCC’s first climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocols. The rich countries caused the climate problem, and it was their responsibility to reduce their emissions before dictating to others.

China stuck to this position for more than a decade.[13] But China’s economic growth was making it difficult for the country to continue to refer to itself as “poor.” In 2006, China became the world’s largest emitter of CO2 on an annual basis, surpassing the United States. And with the 2012 expiration of the Kyoto Protocols on the horizon, China was subjected to diplomatic pressure to assume some responsibility for its own emissions and to be party to a new climate agreement.[14] In 2009, a newly elected President Obama convinced China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to sign the Copenhagen Accord at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Denmark.[15] With its voluntary and therefore non-binding climate commitments, the Accord would provide the basis of the Paris Agreement that was negotiated at UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015.

. . . [M]any of the products made in [China’s] factories are shipped to the rich countries yet, under the UNFCCC, the emissions are . . . China’s responsibility.

China’s diplomats continued to point out that, while China may be the world’s largest emitter, its annual per capita emissions, at around 5.9 tons in 2009, were much lower than that of the United States and other rich countries.[16] Yes, China’s growing energy-intensive manufacturing base had become a major source of CO2, but many of the products made in its factories are shipped to the rich countries, yet, under the UNFCCC, the emissions are deemed China’s responsibility. And, given that cumulative emissions are more important in terms of their climate impact than the annual emissions of countries (emitted CO2 sticks around for centuries), the United States comfortably holds the top spot, being responsible for roughly 25 percent, more than double China’s cumulative emissions.[17] Today, due to its spectacular growth, China’s emissions are twice that of the United States, and annual per capita emissions have risen to 7.6 tons, higher than that of several European countries and almost four times higher than that of India (1.9 tons in 2021).[18]

The Coal Rush
Coal burning is perhaps the main factor behind China’s rising CO2 levels. It currently accounts for more than 20 percent of annual global CO2 emissions.[19] Reflecting its dash for growth, from 1990 to 2019, China’s coal consumption nearly quadrupled, and since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world combined.[20] Statistics like these have made China the target of sustained criticism from environmental groups.[21]

The economic slowdown in China in 2014-2015 saw a 6.5 percent decline in coal use, prompting some analysts to (hopefully, but unconvincingly) declare that China had entered a period of “post-coal growth.”[22] The Brookings Institute wrote at the time, “There is a decoupling of economic growth from the growth in coal consumption. China’s coal consumption might have in fact already peaked.”[23] Those predictions turned out to be way off. As of 2019, coal use was again rising and made up almost 57 percent of China’s energy use. In 2021, China accounted for a little  over 53 percent of the world’s coal consumption, the highest percentage ever.[24] In 2022, China burned 4.3 percent more coal than in the previous year.[25] Equally concerning is the construction of 50 GW of new coal-fired power stations that began in 2022.[26]

Coal-burning has nevertheless contributed to rising living standards; one measure of this is China’s sixfold increase in household electricity consumption since the year 2000.[27] Another measure is vehicle ownership. In 1983, just 2.3 million cars were registered in China. In 2022, the number of registered vehicles stood at 319 million, and annual car sales have reached 27 million.[28]

From Black to Green
The next phase of China’s climate policy began to take shape in 2013 when Xi Jinping became the Communist Party Secretary. He declared that a full-on dash for growth was creating ecological problems, and China would now promote a more balanced and eco-friendly model. The Party constitution and development plan were amended to accommodate the commitment to “ecological civilization.”[29]

In 2014, China announced its BRI, which is currently the country’s signature foreign policy project. Chinese banks and companies have since financed infrastructure deals worth hundreds
of billions of dollars.[30] In 2019, a major government white paper on the BRI declared that it would promote “green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular, and sustainable.”[31]

China’s reputation as a coal-addicted climate laggard was at this point quickly dissipating. The villain-to-hero identity shift quickened when President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement and the Chinese government announced it would no longer finance new coal-fired power stations outside of its borders.[32] China also committed to help establish, in President Xi’s words, “an international coalition for green development,” providing “support to countries in adapting to climate change.”[33] In October 2017, President Xi opened the Party’s National Congress claiming that China was “taking a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change” and had “become a torchbearer in the global endeavor for ecological  civilization.”[34] In September 2020, the Chinese government announced it was “striving to be carbon neutral before 2060.”[35] Acutely aware of China’s economic and political significance, green groups referred to China’s commitment as a “game changer” and a “monumental shift in China’s economic development model.”[36] The fact that, from 2000 to 2015, about 724 GW of coal-fired power-generation capacities were built—the largest fossil-based energy expansion in human history—was, it seems, conveniently forgotten.[37]

Coming from almost nowhere, China is currently the clear global leader in . . . installed wind and solar capacity.

Importantly, China’s policy shift began to be implemented almost immediately. The construction of new coal-fired power stations slowed dramatically. In the thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) announced in November 2016, the energy ministry stated that it intended to cancel or postpone about 150 GW of new coal-fired power projects.[38] Meanwhile, the deployment of wind and solar power went into overdrive. In 2012, China had installed barely 7 GW of solar energy capacities. By the end of 2021, it had installed 307 GW of solar energy systems. China’s installed wind power systems stood at 61 GW in 2012, and less than a decade later, 323 GW were operational.[39] China accounted for 43 percent of global capacity additions in renewables in 2021, adding 121 GW—which is more than the current generation capacity of Spain (118 GW).[40] It invested $380 billion in clean energy in 2021, more than the European Union and the United States  combined.[41] Coming from almost nowhere, China is currently the clear global leader in terms of already installed wind and solar capacity.[42] It has also emerged as the world’s leading manufacturer of solar panels, and half of the top ten wind turbine companies are Chinese.[43]

Expansion, Not Transition
If we step back and assess what is happening here, it is safe to conclude that China’s economy today reflects what is going on in many countries where energy demand is growing at a rapid pace.[44] The global rise in demand for energy has led to a growth in all forms of energy supply, and the growth in renewables is having a limited impact on the overall pattern of energy use.[45] China vividly illustrates this reality. Its turn toward renewables has produced historically unprecedented results, but the share of all wind and solar energy in China’s electricity mix still accounts for a little over 10 percent of electricity supply. And coal use continues to increase, albeit at a much slower pace.[46] Biden’s special climate envoy John Kerry, during his July 2023 visit to China, praised the country’s rapid deployment of wind and solar energy but added “on the other hand, we see new coal coming online, which undoes the benefit of that.”[47] And Kerry should know. While he and Biden were talking up the boom in the U.S. renewables sector, 15 percent of the U.S. coal exports were heading to China, and the United States currently supplies 43 percent of  China’s liquefied natural gas.[48]

Today, China’s commitment to “ecological civilization” mimics the “green growth” model of the developed countries. It wants something that cannot be achieved: trade-driven economic expansion and a trajectory toward net-zero emissions. China’s climate policy has therefore already collided with the realities of capitalism.

But if China is to be, as it already claims, a genuine torchbearer on climate, it must extricate itself from the green growth paradigm. This will require a concerted effort to first control and then reduce energy demand while decarbonizing energy supply. None of the established capitalist countries has been able to achieve this. Falling emissions in the United States and the developed world is not “decoupling” growth from emissions; it is almost entirely due to deindustrialization and offshoring.[49] China today accounts for almost 30 percent of global manufacturing, five times higher than Japan and six times higher than Germany.[50] Offshoring is not an option, and industrialization is marching forward. Nevertheless, China’s leaders seem to believe that they are leading and managing the country’s growth. But this is like a surfer riding a tsunami. The surfer can move left or right, but the real challenge comes when policy attempts to reverse the tide  through the force of political decisions.

Plan It, for the Planet
So where, then, lies the hope? And not just for China, but for all of us? Three things stand out. First, China’s political leadership has demonstrated its capacity to turn policy commitments into concerted, laser-focused action. This suggests that “net zero” is more than a reputational quick fix that helped China finally shed its climate killer image. According to Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, “In many western countries, the long-term nature of the 2060 carbon neutrality pledge would lead many people to dismiss it. This is much less true in China . . . In many Chinese institutions . . . work is underway to figure out how to help move the country toward carbon neutrality in the years ahead.”[51]

Second, in contrast to much of the West, China’s appreciation of the importance of longterm planning is such that, if its leaders ever decide that “moderate prosperity” is either not compatible with “ecological civilization,” or “net zero by 2060,” it is conceivable that China’s next big policy shift will be to move toward a managed decline in energy use while aggressively decarbonizing how its energy is generated. Of course, it is a long shot. But if any country can pull this off, it is surely China. An added factor here is China’s growing dependency on fuels from beyond its borders. Its energy-related import-export gap is growing, and energy security is a major concern. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and 40 percent of it goes to China.[52] In 2020, China also imported around 73 percent of its crude oil and 60 percent of its natural gas.[53] Aside from the ecological and reputational benefits of reducing energy use, the prospect of not having access to sufficient supplies of fossil fuels is a scary one—ask Germany.

China’s industrial capacity and knowhow in wind, solar, hydropower, and (increasingly) nuclear . . . could help the rest of the world transition to clean energy.

Third, if China pushes on toward “net zero,” the role of China’s public energy companies (SOEs) will be crucial. In China, SOEs have, since 1950, connected more than nine hundred million people to the grid in what has been described as the single most important achievement in the history of electrification.[54] Today, SOEs are driving China’s deployment of renewable energy, nuclear power, and hydrogen. They are installing wind turbines at a rate of one every hour.[55] SOEs are the driving force behind massive wind and solar projects known as “renewable energy bases.”[56] Situated in the Mongolian desert, these bases are sometimes 500 MW or larger, which makes a single project larger than the power capacity of several African countries. According to one source, “China’s five largest state-owned power-generation companies will add 329 GW of clean energy in 2021-2025.”[57] By way of comparison, the United States is expected to add 75 GW  of privately owned wind and solar systems during the same period.[58] China is also in the middle of its “fourth wave” of (fully public) nuclear power deployment. According to the World Nuclear Association, 26 GW of nuclear power is under construction; 50 GW of additional capacity has been approved, and 95 GW of capacity has been proposed. Its hydrogen program, also public, is more ambitious than anything seen elsewhere in the world.[59]

An overused Chinese proverb reads, “He who cheats the earth will be cheated by the earth.” It’s not in any five-year plan, but it is more likely to become a reality than “green growth will bring happiness.” China’s industrial capacity and knowhow in wind, solar, hydropower, and (increasingly) nuclear—most of which is state-owned or sustained by government policies—could help the rest of the world transition to clean energy. But this is likely to require its political leaders reach a point where they view climate protection and environmental preservation to be more important than continued economic expansion.

If that day ever comes—and it will need to come soon given the climate threat—China could then champion a global public goods approach anchored in public energy and economic planning. Instead of a platform to fuel China’s growth and accumulation by gaining access to energy and vital minerals abroad, the BRI could become a model of skills and technology sharing aimed at a low-carbon and truly sustainable global political economy.[60]

3. Transcript: President Xi Jinping’s report to China’s 2022 Party Congress (October 2022)
4. Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), xvii
5. T. Parrique, J. Barth, F. Briens, C. Kerschner, A. Kraus-Polk, A. Kuokkanen, J. H. Spangenberg, Decoupling Debunked: Evidence and Arguments against Green Growth as a Sole Strategy for Sustainability (European Environmental Bureau, 2019), In 2016, The World Resources Institute,
6. IPCC, Press Release, August 9, 2021, IEA (2019).
7. As of October 2022, sixty-six countries across the world have communicated a net-zero target, which together represent over 56.5 percent of the global emissions.
9. Much has been written about China’s embrace of capitalism and the rise in living standards that followed. But less has been said about the development of human capital, infrastructure, etc. that ensured that the transition would, in material terms, be successful.
10. Based on World Bank and UN criteria, China is still considered a developing country. In 2019, 373 million people in China still lived below the World Bank’s upper-middle-income poverty line of US$5.50 per day.
11. Zhihong Zhang, “The Forces behind China’s Climate Change Policy: Interests, Sovereignty and Prestige,” in Global Warming and East Asia: The Domestic and International Politics of Climate Change, ed. Paul G. Harris (London: Routledge, 2003).
16. IEA Special Report, Financing Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging and Developing Economies (EMDEs).
18. The per capita emissions of Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh are currently less than one ton of CO2 annually, and just under two tons in the case of India.
22. Qi Ye et al., “China’s Post Coal Growth,” Nature Geoscience 9 (2016): 564-66, doi:10.1038/ngeo2777.
27. However, residential consumption still accounts for just 13% of the final energy use, while industry accounts for 59%. https://www.statista. com/statistics/597852/household-consumption-of-electricity-per-capita-in-china/;;
29. Heidi Wang-Kaeding, “What Does Xi Jinping’s New Phrase ‘Ecological Civilization’ Mean?” The Diplomat, March 6, 2018,; Ben Parr and Don Henry, “China Moves Towards Ecological Civilisation,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, August 24, 2016. Cited in: Barbara Finamore, Will China Save the Planet? (Polity Press), p. 32.
31. Cited by David Sandalow et al., Guide to Chinese Climate Policy 2022 (Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, 2022),
36. WWF, September 23, 2020, available at China-climate-NDC.
37. Shuyu Li, Xue Yang and Rongrong Li, “Forecasting China’s Coal Power Installed Capacity: A Comparison of MGM, ARIMA, GM-ARIMA, and NMGM Models.” Sustainability 10, no. 2 (2018): 506. doi:10.3390/ su10020506. Cited by Barbara Finamore, Will China Save the Planet? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018, Kindle Edition), pp. 34-35.
39. IRENA (2022), Renewable Energy Statistics 2022, The International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi.
41. IEA, World Energy Investment 2022.
42. IRENA highlight doc [note: cumulative GW # not in REN21 data] followed by the United States (398 GW), Brazil (160 GW), India (158 GW), and Germany (139 GW).
43. Sean Sweeney, “Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors,” New Labor Forum 30, no.
3 (August 2021): 104-110, available at
44. Globally, electricity’s share of total final energy consumption is growing. It is the fastest-growing energy end use, as electricity consumption has doubled over the last 23 years, with a 37 percent increase in the last decade.
45. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), “even though there was a lot of solar and wind capacity installed in the latest decade, its impact on the electricity mix has been gradual, not dramatic.” The share of global electrical power generated during the first half of 2020 by wind and solar capacity was just 10%. Frankfurt School-UNEP Center/BNEF, Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2019,
46. IRENA (2022), Renewable Energy Statistics 2022, The International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi.
47. The Guardian, July 18, 2023
48. Mary Hui, “Oil and Gas Exports Are Complicating the US-China Relationship,” Quartz, June 28, 2023, available at
49. Glen P. Peters and Edgar G. Hertwich, “CO2 Embodied in International Trade with Implications for Global Climate Policy; Industrial Ecology Programme, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway,” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 5 (2008): 1401–7.doi:10.1021/es072023k.
53. China’s international targets are supported by its Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking  and Carbon Neutrality and Action Plan For Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030, as well as the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), which includes energy and carbon intensity reduction targets, as well as energy targets such as non-fossil shares for energy and electricity sectors.
54. Gang He and David G. Victor, “Experiences and Lessons from China’s Success in Providing Electricity for All,” Resources, Conservation, and Recycling 122 (2017): 335–38. doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.03.011.
55. Beth Gardiner, “Three Reasons to Believe in China’s Renewable Energy Boom.” National Geographic, May 12, 2017.
56. “China Ratchets Up Renewable Energy Development, with SOEs Spearheading Low- Carbon Transition,” Global Times, February 13, 2023, available at
57. Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis (IEEFA) Report: China in 2017 Continued to Position Itself for Global Clean Energy Dominance. January 9, 2018, available at 2017-continued-position-itself-global-cleanenergy-dominance.
60. China’s Atomic Energy Authority already trains nuclear scientists and technicians in developing countries. China currently has 72 colleges with nuclear engineering majors. Every year, more than 3,000 undergraduate students are enrolled to study nuclear engineering. Beginning in 2017, China’s three stateowned companies partnered with Tsinghua University to provide full scholarships to foreign students in nuclear engineering and management in the hope that graduates will “make contributions to the cooperation between China and their motherlands after graduation.” See: See also: Specialties, Tsinghua University International,

Author Biography
Sean Sweeney is the director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. He also coordinates Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), a global network of 83 unions from 24 countries. TUED advocates for democratic control and social ownership of energy resources, infrastructure, and options.