The Chinese regime may have used the Winter Olympics to signal an interest in clean energy, but critics suggest the event’s purported “carbon neutrality” is mere theater amid a record of sizeable fossil fuel consumption.
“It’s a bunch of theater really,” said Riley Walters, an expert on East Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “To say that the Winter Olympics was a net zero or green … and then … to announce a $4 billion investment in three new coal mines. It’s theater. It’s like saying my fridge is 100% net-zero on emissions but I’ve got a diesel washing machine.”
Walters was referring to China’s top planning agency approving $3.8 billion worth of coal mines on Feb. 21, a move that would reportedly yield 19 million tons of coal per year. A week after February’s Games started, China’s state-run news agency also announced coal-fire powered plants would be running at full capacity to meet production demands. The awkward juxtaposition with a purportedly climate-concerned China has been compounded by its recent 10-year oil deal with Russia.
Yet, China’s efforts have been a source of optimism among some and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has touted the nation’s methods for achieving purported neutrality. Michael Davidson, a policy expert with the University of California, San Diego, said that China’s clean energy sources could power the Olympics, which constitutes just a small portion of the country’s electricity consumption.
“The hope is that this process will put into place some institutions that could help leverage a much broader-scale move to green,” Davidson said, according to a Dec. 29 report by IEEE.
The nation’s multi-pronged approach entails retrofitting existing venues as well as fuel efficient and clean energy vehicles provided by Toyota for transportation. More specifically, 85 percent of Toyota’s vehicles will be “clean” while transportation within the Beijing and Zhangjiakou zones will utilize natural gas and hydrogen-fuelled technologies.
However, some of China’s methods have received considerable skepticism. For example, Davidson questioned the ability of Chinese infrastructure to fully utilize its green-power capacity, as well as noting the “complicated” nature of claiming its power grid, which draws from a variety of sources, is producing completely clean energy for the Games.
Much of the alleged neutrality relies on 1.7 million carbon credits offsetting the estimated 1.3 million tons in the games’ carbon footprint. According to Bloomberg, the vast majority of those credits—1.1 million—come from tree planting projects, a tool with questionable long-term efficacy. Finally, its mass production of artificial snow has prompted concerns about potential harm to soil despite preservation efforts by the Beijing Organizing Committee.
China’s Economic Ambitions
Olympic-level climate efforts could help the Chinese regime gain credibility both with the IOC and multilateral pacts. The 2022 Games are also taking place against the backdrop of China’s pledge to peak carbon emissions by 2030, reach carbon neutrality by 2060, and halt production of coal-fired power plants abroad.
China, as the International Energy Agency reported last year, holds a massively disproportionate share of the world’s resources and processing for materials critical to a transition away from fossil fuels. LMC Automotive projected that China would produce eight million electric cars by 2028 while the country has managed to play a critical role in solar development.
But just as it outpaces international competitors in some green products, the Asian powerhouse also outpaces the rest of the world in emissions that create the purported need for those technologies. Last year, the Rhodium Group released a report claiming that China emitted more than the United States and other developed nations combined.
China has also gained attention for widely circulated photos of smog visibly polluting its cities. And its recent climate commitments-like its joint statement with the United States following COP 26—have come alongside moves to increase coal production.
“There is no reason to expect Chinese emissions to drop,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. He pointed to a recently announced deal in which Russia committed to providing 100 million tons of coal to China.
Noting the importance of fossil fuels, Steve Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com, said “you cannot run the Chinese economy on solar.”
Milloy, a former Trump transition advisor, emphasized China’s interest in becoming the “lone global superpower by 2049.” He added that “[a]s long as you understand that that’s their focus, then everything else makes sense.”
China’s economic ambitions can be seen, for example, in the “Made in China 2025” national strategy, which is focused on research and development in addition to increasing domestic production in a range of high-tech fields. While part of that plan has also called for sustainable energy use, it also prompted the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to doubt how much stock the international community can place in Chinese commitments.
In a Feb. 16 report, the USTR argues that China has consistently failed to follow through on promises to liberalize its economy. On climate, China has similarly come under fire for its apparent reluctance in assisting global emissions reduction efforts. Even the purported progress in its COP26 declaration was criticized for not going far enough. A “Nature” study from 2019 also claimed that China increased its emissions of trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11) in an apparent disregard for the Montreal Protocol, which it ratified.
China’s interest in competing economically also seems to pose risks for international cooperation on a series of issues, including climate change. The U.S. administration has imposed numerous sanctions on Chinese solar companies and continues to accuse the nation of genocide of ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang—creating potential sticking points for future negotiations. Experts previously told The Epoch Times that the regime could take advantage of global climate initiatives.
Katie Tubb, an economic policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said the Paris Climate goals, in particular, could offer China leverage in negotiations. “If the U.S. and the EU are all the way bought into achieving the Paris Agreements [on carbon emission reductions], China is in a position of strength to leverage that issue to get gains elsewhere,” she said.