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What do Sinopec Capital’s calls to end ‘burning era’ tell us about China’s environmental policy?

China is the biggest contributor to climate change in terms of CO2 emissions but should the country be doing more to curb its pollution rates?

Sinopec Capital, a subsidiary of the largest oil and gas company in the world, called for an end to the ‘burning era’ at the end of last month – but does China’s environmental policy reflect the bold rhetoric?

In a keynote speech, Huang Wenshang, chairman of Sinopec’s investment arm, called for the human race to “go beyond the ‘burning era’, to give-up fossil fuels, embrace electrification and work towards a greener future where electric vehicles dominate cities’ roads”.

The Chinese state-owned company and subsidiary of the Sinopec Group is involved in oil and gas exploration, refining and production.

Dr Harald Heubaum, lecturer in global energy and climate policy at SOAS University of London, is not surprised by the statement.

He says: “You’d expect the head of Sinopec Capital to be saying that - their job is to invest in new technologies and new ideas in the clean tech and renewable sector.

“It’s still a big statement to call the end of the burning era – which basically means the end of the internal combustion engine – but we have had this discussion for decades.”


Impact of the US trade war on China’s environmental policy

China's environmental policy
Benxi heavy steel industries, China (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

China has been largest emitter of CO2 in the world for over a decade and remains so to this day, but, despite positive steps in the right direction, progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the country has recently faltered.

The ongoing trade war between the US and China has resulted in high tariffs on Chinese steel, which has had implications for Chinese environmental policy.

Harald says: “External analysts celebrated Chinese coal emissions flat lining and we thought they had reached a peak.

“But because of recent tensions and the trade war between China and the US we have actually seen Chinese emissions increase again.

“Restrictions on the steel factories and other industries have been eased in order to make it easy to produce more cheaply.”


China’s dependence on coal

China is still heavily reliant on coal-fired power stations, which contribute to roughly 60% of the country’s energy mix.

Despite progress, Harald believes that the fossil fuel will make up a “significant share” of the Chinese energy mix for quite some time.

He adds: “The Chinese are still building coal fire stations – not at the same rate they used to but these things are still carrying on.

“The Chinese power market is so big and the demands are so big that they will have to continue with the current approach for some time and further efficiency gains and energy savings can be made.

“Interestingly, though, China has a lot more of the super efficient coal-fired power plants than the US so the coal power that China generates is actually much cleaner than what’s being produced in other parts of the world.”

As a result, China is likely to remain the largest contributor to climate change for some time.


Should China have a stricter environmental policy?

The Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), provide a blueprint for countries to jointly address climate change but defines each country’s responsibility differently.

The CBDR identifies developed countries as contributing more to climate change and industrialisation, and therefore assigns a stricter level of responsibility on these countries.

China straddles several definitions but still uses the CBDR to shirk some of its responsibilities, according to Harald.

“Historically-speaking, the global north has legacy issues – CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 100 years so what we did 100 years ago, when China wasn’t producing emissions in any serious amount, is still there.

“But China has caught up so quickly, so fast and is producing so much in the way of CO2 and equivalent such as methane that the argument doesn’t hold anymore.

“Today it produces more than a quarter of the global emissions and is a lot larger overall than the US.

“Any historical lag it had behind the established industrial powers has now been made up.

Chinese Pollution plan
China is still the largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet - despite signing the Paris climate pact.

“The Chinese still use it because it’s a convenient argument and it’s been part of international discourse for a long time and has been written into international treaties.

“It’s something that the country can hide behind.

“It’s an interesting place for China to be in because it styles itself on being a developing country and a developed country at the same time – so it has these hugely developed cities and industries along the eastern seaboard and very underdeveloped areas in the west.

“It’s understandable to an extent that they would claim to be one of the less developed countries but in reality it’s politics being played.

“China has the power to make a difference and they are to an extent domestically, but they should be doing a lot more than they currently are.”


Only four countries currently doing enough to reach Paris agreement targets

Harald is keen to stress that China is not the only country that needs to up its environmental policy – with only India, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Morocco currently on track to mitigate global warming to levels below 2 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker.

Harald says: “It is not a Chinese problem to point the finger at it should highlight to all of us that we aren’t offering enough with the exception of a small group of countries.

“The important point to make is that it’s caught in this trap of wanting to continue to grow its economy and continue to service the demands of a large population with a growing middle class, while at the same time doing something for the climate.

“It’s a tricky place to be, I’m not saying it’s easy, but more needs to be done for the global climate.”

China’s current response has been to export a lot of its high-emission energy production and industry to other countries, in accordance with the belt and road initiative.

Harald says: “China is pushing these things beyond its boundaries in the same ways that we have done when we outsourced our steel and other things to China.

“Our western emission profiles are only small, in part because of the exporting of emissions and energy intensive production to other parts of the world.

“Now China is following a similar mould because it’s getting cheaper to do that elsewhere.”


The uptake of electric vehicles in China

electric vehicles in minnesota, China’s environmental policy, China environmental policy
(Credit: Flickr/Noya Fields)

One current positive in terms of China’s environmental policy is the uptake and cheap production of electric vehicles.

The Sinopec Capital chairman called for a future where electric vehicles dominate the roads and predicted that this would be the case by 2045.

A recent study predicted that China will account for almost 60% of the world’s electric vehicle sales by 2035.

Harald says: “The market for electric vehicles is driven by China and there is a bit of a revolution underway in the car market – it may not be as fast as suggested in the Sinopec statement but by the standards of other renewable success stories it is moving fast.

“This has been driven by policies and governments being more involved, in countries like China, Norway and others around the world who have been active in this space and giving tax incentives.

“In the Chinese case you also see certain targets and a percentage share given on how many new electric or hybrid cars are sold and limiting the number of diesel and petrol powered cars in given areas.

“There are a wide ranging number of things you can do, going all the way down to giving priority access for electric vehicle cars on taxi or bus lanes and giving them priority parking.”

The result of these policies has been that China now has a 45% share of the electric vehicle market with most of the big manufacturers based in the country.

Harald adds: “We’re not going to have an entirely electric vehicle sector within a couple of decades but the trends are shifting.

“Global sales will soon reach five million but the number of internal combustion engine cars is in the region of two billion.

“However the growth rates are such that we’ll get to a heavy penetration by 2040 - China will drive a lot of that.”