China, India to Reach Climate Goals Years Early, as U.S. Likely to Fall Far Short

While Trump administration rolls back emission controls, the other top emitters are moving quickly to fight climate change by cutting coal and boosting renewables.

Installing solar panels in India
India’s renewable energy burst has put it eight years ahead of its 2030 goal, and China’s emissions from energy use appear to have peaked more than a decade early, a new report says. Credit: San Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

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Slowing coal use in China and India has put the world’s two most populous countries on track to beat their carbon emission goals under the Paris climate agreement, according to a new analysis.

Greenhouse gas emissions from both countries are growing more slowly than they predicted just a year ago, and the difference is substantial—roughly 2 to 3 billion tons annually by the year 2030.

That would be enough to more than offset the relatively poor performance expected from the United States as President Donald Trump rolls back controls and puts the U.S. on track to miss its Paris pledge.

The forecasts were issued by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of three international research organizations, as negotiators from around the world met in Bonn, Germany, to carry out the global climate treaty’s work.

“Five years ago, the idea of either China or India stopping—or even slowing—coal use was considered an insurmountable hurdle, as coal-fired power plants were thought by many to be necessary to satisfy the energy demands of these countries,” said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the research consortium members. “Recent observations show they are now on the way toward overcoming this challenge.”

At a time when the United States, the No. 2 contributor to world carbon emissions, appears poised to back away from its Paris climate pledge, the trends in China and India are a significant development in the battle to curb climate change.

CO2 emissions in China and India

China is the world’s leading carbon polluter and India is the third largest. Together, their reductions are enough to outweigh the effect of Trump’s proposed rollback in U.S. climate policy, which is likely to put the nation on track to emit 400 million metric tons more than previously projected by 2030, the analysts said.

China’s CO2 emissions from energy use appear to have peaked more than a decade ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment, though its greenhouse gas emissions from other sources will continue to rise, Carbon Tracker said.

The nation’s coal consumption has declined for three consecutive years, and the outlook is for a continued slow decline, said the report. Beijing recently canceled plans for just over 100 new coal-fired power plants, some of which were already under construction. The fast growth of renewable energy—and slowing energy demand—made the new plants unnecessary, the analysts said. Cancellation of those plants, totaling 120 gigawatts of capacity, adds up to savings of about 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That’s about equivalent to the amount that the United States cut its annual emissions from 2007 to 2015.

In India, where solar photovoltaic prices dropped to a historic low this week, according to a separate analysis by another nonprofit group, Carbon Tracker. Renewable energy is growing so quickly that the nation is on track to be eight years early in reaching its 2030 goal: for clean energy to supply 40 percent of the nation’s installed electricity. If the nation’s new draft electricity plan is implemented, India will reach 57 percent renewable energy by 2027, the analysts said. India canceleed four coal-fired “ultra-mega” power projects last year, in the face of cheaper renewable energy and slowing of demand growth.

The cuts in energy demand in China and India are significant because their economies are growing at 7 percent annually, significantly faster than the world average of 2.7 percent (and U.S. GDP growth of 2.6 percent), according to the World Bank.  Both developing countries set their targets under the Paris accord in terms of emissions intensity cuts—reducing the amount of emissions per unit of GDP—rather than achieving absolute emissions cuts, because of their commitments to continue economic growth.

Climate Action Tracker said China is on track to achieve or surpass its goal to reduce its emissions intensity by 64 to 70 percent below its 2005 levels by 2030. India’s Paris climate pledge was to lower the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 below 2005 levels. Carbon Tracker projects that, with current policies, India will leap past that mark to a 42 to 45 percent cut in emissions intensity by 2030.

The new data follows an international climate meeting in Bonn, where Indian Minister of State Shri Piyush Goyal made a strong statement of his country’s commitment to its pledge under the 2015 Paris agreement, despite what other nations do. Though he didn’t mention the United States by name, his reference to Trump’s planned rollback of U.S. goals was clear.

“The road from Paris to today has been somewhat bumpy,” Goyal said. “We will have to sort that out. But I’d like to reassure each one of you here today that India stands committed to its commitments made at Paris irrespective of what happens in the rest of the world.”

Despite their recent successes in slowing their carbon emissions growth, Climate Action Tracker noted that emissions still were on track to continue growing in both China and India. It rated both China and India’s climate plans as “medium,” at the least ambitious end of what the analysts reckon would be a fair contribution to addressing global warming. Their policies, in other words, are not consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C, let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger aim of a 1.5°C limit, unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater efforts.

Climate Action Tracker said that Trump’s planned policies, if implemented, would downgrade U.S. efforts from “medium” to “inadequate.”

Zahra Hirji contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story confused two nonprofits that carried out analyses on carbon emissions and solar energy. Climate Action Tracker conducted the emissions trends analysis; Carbon Tracker did the study on solar prices in India.