After the 2008 financial crisis, China poured 4 trillion yuan ($560 billion) into new airports, train stations, and roads—all carbon-intensive projects that looked forward to a carbon-intensive future.
In the ensuing decade, President Xi Jinping has tried to stake out a position as a global leader on climate change. By the end of 2020, China was supposed to have started weaning itself off coal, built up its solar and wind infrastructure, cleaned its air, and made electric vehicles an everyday sight. It was either on track to meet or had already met most of its 2020 climate goals before the pandemic.
Now the country faces a deeper crisis. Even as the death toll mounted in February, Xi stressed that the country should not only “win the war with the virus” but also “achieve this year’s targets for social and economic development.” And yet, as the economic pressure from Covid-19 increased, China began to loosen restrictions on industrial pollution and is inching back toward coal as a cheap source of power.
The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus created unprecedented drops in pollution benchmarks, including carbon emissions, particulate matter, and concentrations of other noxious gases. But that’s not progress—the true test will come as the country roars back to life. Many of its climate goals were also relative to growth. That means that as China’s economy grew by almost 40% from 2015 to 2019, its coal use and carbon emissions were allowed to rise.
China is the world’s biggest consumer of almost everything, so any change in the country’s trajectory could have a major influence on the global effort to stem global warming. Even a little backsliding could be devastating. —With Karoline Kan and Dan Murtaugh