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China Briefing, 18 November 2021: Xi-Biden meeting; Methane emissions; ‘Historic new high’ for coal

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s weekly China Briefing email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Snapshot

China’s president Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden discussed climate issues this week in their first virtual meeting. Xi said climate change could become a “new highlight in the Sino-US cooperation”. Biden called on the two sides to “work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change”.

Meanwhile, one of the key outcomes from the US-China joint climate declaration released during COP26 is the two nations’ promises to reduce the emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. One expert said that the declaration showed that methane cutting “is [listed] explicitly on the agenda of this important bilateral relationship”.

Elsewhere, China’s daily coal output set a “historic new high” last Wednesday, surpassing 12m tonnes, according to the state economic planner. Furthermore, the country produced 360m tonnes of raw coal in October amid a nationwide production drive, according to its statistics authority. The figure is the highest since March 2015, Reuters said.

Key developments

Xi and Biden promote climate cooperation in virtual meeting

WHAT: Xi and Biden held a much-anticipated virtual conference earlier this week to address a wide range of topics including climate change. This is the first virtual meeting between Chinese and US leaders in the two nations’ diplomatic history, China’s deputy foreign minister Xie Feng said. Xi and Biden had already discussed climate issues in a phone call in September. The latest exchange took place on Tuesday morning Beijing time or Monday night US eastern standard time. According to China’s state media, the dialogue lasted three hours and 40 minutes. Both sides expressed hopes of working together to tackle climate issues.

XI: Xinhua – the state news agency – published a readout of Xi’s remarks. Below are some key points on climate change from Xi, according to the release. Xi said that the issue “can absolutely become a new highlight in the Sino-US cooperation” and underlined that China would need to spend “very arduous effort” to “accomplish the greatest carbon intensity drop globally using the shortest time in history”. He emphasised that China had the tradition of delivering on its commitments and yielding results with its action before stressing that one must not promise what they will not be able to achieve. Moreover, Xi called for cooperation instead of accusation and called on nations to compare their actions, not their slogans. Xi wrapped up his climate comments by urging developed countries to “earnestly fulfil their historical responsibilities and bounded duty”.

BIDEN: The readout from the White House said that Biden and Xi “discussed the existential nature of the climate crisis to the world” and the important role the two countries play. It noted that “they also discussed the importance of taking measures to address global energy supplies”. The White House also published Biden’s opening remarks. According to it, Biden told Xi: “It seems to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change.” He also stated the importance of “a sound and steady China-US relationship” for “safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment, including finding effective responses to global challenges such as climate change”, the remarks showed.

CHINA COVERAGE: According to CCTV – China’s state broadcaster – Xi and Biden had “thorough and in-depth communication and exchange on strategic, overall and fundamental issues related to the development of the China-US relations as well as important issues of mutual concern”. It ran a video showing Xi giving his opening speech, including the part where Xi called Biden an “old friend” – a special diplomatic term reserved by China for selected foreign politicians. CGTN – the English arm of CCTV – reported that, according to Xi, China and the US “should fully harness the dialogue channels and mechanisms” between their climate change teams to “advance practical cooperation and resolve specific issues”. China’s deputy foreign minister Xie said at a post-meeting press briefing that climate change cooperation was “inseparable from the overall sentiment of the two countries’ relations” and needed efforts from both sides, state-run newswire China News Service reported.

US COVERAGE: CNN reported that, during the meeting, Biden “raised areas where the US and China can cooperate, including on climate change”. The network noted: “The two countries recently surprised observers at the COP26 climate talks in Scotland with a joint pledge to cut emissions.” In another piece, CNN wrote that the virtual meeting “saw no substantive policy on key issues” including climate, but “it did establish a dialogue that can be built on”. The New York Times said that the two leaders “reiterated their commitment” to the climate change issue, but “much remains unclear about how the two governments will work together”. And according to AP, the White House “​​has said it views cooperation on climate change as something in China’s interest, something the two nations should cooperate on despite differences on other aspects of the relationship”. Other US outlets, including the Washington Post, CNBC, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News and VOA News, also reported on the meeting.

China and US pledge to collaborate on cutting methane

WHAT: China and the US have agreed to work together to reduce methane emissions in this decade – one of the key takeaways from the two countries’ joint climate declaration released last week at COP26. According to the “surprise” deal, both sides recognise the “significant role” methane emissions play in climate change and “consider increased action to control and reduce such emissions to be a matter of necessity in the 2020s”.

METHANE: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) with an estimated warming potential of around 30 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is the second biggest contributor to human-caused global warming after CO2. But unlike CO2 – which affects the atmosphere for centuries – methane’s atmospheric lifetime is much shorter, at about 10 years. This means that slashing methane emissions could reduce warming relatively quickly (while cutting CO2 emissions only means no additional warming). Carbon Brief’s analysis on the Global Methane Pledge – which the US has signed but China has not – had more explanation on methane. (China’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge refers to the neutralisation of all GHGs – which include methane – according to its climate envoy Xie Zhenhua.)

DETAIL: According to the joint declaration, China and the US “intend to cooperate to enhance the measurement of methane emissions”. They also “intend” to “exchange information on their respective policies and programmes for strengthening management and control of methane” and to “foster joint research into methane emission reduction challenges and solutions”, the deal said. Specifically, the statement noted that, before COP27 next November, the two countries “intend to develop additional measures to enhance methane emission control, at both the national and sub-national levels” and that China “intends to develop a comprehensive and ambitious National Action Plan on methane”. Both sides also “intend” to meet in the first half of next year “to focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane”, the document read.

CHINA’S POLICY: Several key documents released by China this year – including its 14th five-year plan and its updated nationally determined contribution – contained expressions on the reduction of methane emissions, according to a blog post from the Beijing representative office of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-profit organisation headquartered in the US. The piece said that Li Gao, director-general of the department of climate change at China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, stated in January 2020 that the nation would “consider promoting actions of limiting methane emissions when the conditions are mature”. In March this year, Li said that China would formulate an action plan to “control methane emissions” during the 14th five-year plan period – which runs from 2021 to 2025 – the post noted. Commenting on the joint declaration, Fred Krupp, president of EDF, said: “It’s notable that near-term action, in particular, to reduce methane emissions, is [listed] explicitly on the agenda of this important bilateral relationship and is moving to specifics.”

Q&A

CHINA BRIEFING ASKS: Why is it important for China to reduce methane emissions?

PROF PIERS FORSTER – professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds and director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate – said: “China is the world’s largest emitter of methane (twice as much as the two next biggest emitters, the US and India). We showed in our IPCC SR1.5 report that globally, we have to cut methane rapidly and substantially as well as CO2 for a chance of staying below 1.5C. That’s why we need China to cut emissions of both gases. I hope China includes both methane cuts and reduced CO2 emissions in its revised NDC by next year. It can really keep 1.5C alive if it does. Fixing gas pipe leaks would be great and easy. Methane from waste is fixable. Methane emissions from rice paddies are harder to reduce.”

QIN HU – senior director of research at EDF’s Beijing representative office – said: “The climate benefit is explicit as it has been highlighted by scientific research. In addition, as methane is a precursor of ground ozone, reducing its emissions will contribute to China’s air quality improvement. Furthermore, controlling methane can lead to the reduction of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are also a contributor to air pollution – an issue China is addressing on its domestic environmental agenda.”

DR MICHELLE CAIN – lecturer in environmental data analytics at Cranfield University and visiting researcher at the University of Oxford – said: “China is the world’s largest emitter of methane, and the majority of this comes from coal mining (which also leads to large emissions of CO2 when coal is burnt). So, to make progress globally, China’s action on methane is clearly important. Rising methane emissions drive temperatures upwards, which is happening right now, to a large extent driven by rising emissions from China. If we succeed in reducing global methane emissions, the level of warming caused by methane will start to decline because (unlike CO2), methane is short-lived. Hence declining methane emissions globally would help us on the path to limiting global warming to 1.5C or well below 2C, as long as it is in addition to reaching net-zero CO2 emissions as quickly as possible.”

THOM WOODROOFE – a former climate diplomat and fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute – said: “China’s commitment to work on reducing its emissions of methane and in combating illegal timber are perhaps two of the most important parts of their joint declaration with the US. While China might have stopped short of signing the Global Methane Pledge at COP26, the nature and timeline of what they have now committed to do with the US is arguably more robust.”

​​Other news

COAL: China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the state economic planner, said that the country’s daily coal output last Wednesday had exceeded 12m tonnes, setting a “historic new high”. The authority also noted that multiple provinces – including Shanxi, Shaanxi and Xinjiang – had seen their daily output record “recent-year new highs”. It added that the boost in coal production had “laid a stronger foundation” for the nation’s efforts to ensure “energy security”. (Read Carbon Brief’s analysis on how China’s recent power shortages would affect its climate action.)

360M TONNES: The National Bureau of Statistics said on Monday that the country had produced 360m tonnes of raw coal in October. The authority said that the figure showed a 4% year-on-year growth or a 5.5% rise compared to the same period of 2019. China’s coal output in September had seen a 0.9% year-on-year decrease, the bureau noted. It added that the nation had imported nearly 27m tonnes of coal last month, almost twice as much as the volume from October last year. Reuters said the reported October daily output was the highest “since at least March 2015”.

MORE SUPPLY: China will continue to increase the supplies of thermal coal and natural gas amid national efforts to drive power generation for upcoming peak months, the country’s vice premier Han Zheng instructed on Monday, according to Xinhua. Han – who is also the head of China’s climate leaders group – noted that the country’s electricity supply had “increased continuously” and “the supply-demand situation” had “gradually returned to normality”, the outlet reported. He was also quoted ordering the meeting’s attendees to “go all out” to solve the problems that prevented firms from generating power. Earlier this month, China’s State Grid warned of possible “local” electricity shortages in the next few months.

1+N: China is drafting the “implementation plans” for peaking CO2 emissions and achieving carbon neutrality, according to the NDRC. Meng Wei, a spokeswoman at the NDRC, told reporters on Tuesday that “relevant departments” were “researching and formulating” such plans for sectors including energy, industry, urban and rural construction, transport, agriculture and rural areas as well as “key” industries including steel, petrochemical, non-ferrous metals, building materials, electric power and oil and gas. Those plans will form part of China’s “1+N” policy system, a set of national directives to help the country meet its climate goals. (Read the 28 October China Briefing for more on 1+N.)

COP26: Frans Timmermans – the EU’s executive vice president and climate commissioner – said he “wouldn’t be too critical of China” when asked by CNBC about his thoughts on China’s push for changes of wording in the final agreement of COP26. Timmermans told the channel: “I would have preferred phasing out, but to phase down is already much stronger than anything that has ever been said in an international context.” Carbon Brief has published in-depth analysis of the key outcomes of COP26.

NUCLEAR: A small Chinese city has started using heat generated by a nuclear power plant for its winter heating, China Daily reported. Haiyang in eastern China’s Shandong province started to supply the so-called “zero-carbon heating” to its 200,000 residents last Tuesday, the state-run paper said. A 37-year-old local praised the method, saying his home’s temperature could reach 22 to 23C. Jiang Yi, an academic of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told CCTV that this was the first time a Chinese city had utilised the extra heating from nuclear power for commercial heating.

Extra reading

New science

The 2021 China report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: seizing the window of opportunity
The Lancet

A new report by the Lancet has found that climate-related health threats “are worsening” in China. In particular, the report listed three “most concerning trends” that pose health threats from a regional perspective. They are the rising heat-related mortality, labour loss and dengue risk in Guangdong province; flood and drought risks in Sichuan province; and wildfire exposures in Liaoning and Jilin provinces. The study assessed the health profile of climate change in China by analysing 25 indicators within five domains. It includes the contributions of 88 experts from 25 leading institutions in and outside of China, according to the report.

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