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This week:

  • China leads the world in emissions, but its clean tech boom has lessons for Canada
  •  A lake in the driest place in North America
  • Should Canada’s pension funds do more to fuel the energy transition?

China leads the world in emissions, but its clean tech boom has lessons for Canada

Chimneys spew steam behind solar panels in Shaanxi province in China in April 2023. China, responsible for one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, is amid a record expansion of renewable energy. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

What On Earth54:03Could 2024 be the year China becomes a climate…leader?

China emits a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. But it’s also a leader in renewables. We hear from people inside the country about its paradoxical – and controversial – energy mix. Plus, you’ve maybe weighed the option of buying a new EV, but one listener asks: can you retrofit a gas car? We find out. And, in Alberta, severe drought in the middle of winter is forcing difficult conversations about who gets less water come spring. We check in with a rancher and learn how monitoring is helping landowners manage their wells. Finally, why one B.C. university is trying out spiritual care as a balm for climate anxiety.

When the world’s largest carbon emitter announced in 2020 that it would aim to have carbon emissions peak by the end of the decade and be carbon neutral by 2060, climate watchers were cautiously optimistic.

After all, “there is no plausible path to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 C without China,” says the International Energy Agency.

At the time of the announcement, Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t specify the year in which he expected his country’s emissions to peak. But analysts from the Finnish think-tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air projected in a report that 2024 could be the year emissions in China start to fall. 

If that happens, it could be considered a huge win for the climate. 

“It’s highly likely that when China’s emissions go into decline, global emissions will follow,” report author and lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta told What On Earth

China emits roughly one-third of the world’s carbon dioxide, according to the IEA. But a record expansion of renewable energy — particularly solar and wind — along with a doubling of the production of EV batteries and lower demand for concrete and steel in 2023 “all but guarantee a decline in China’s CO2 emissions in 2024,” Myllyvirta says in his report.

Yet this comes as China continues to approve new coal power plants across the country. Last year, it approved the equivalent of two new coal plants per week, according to the Global Energy Monitor.

Coal accounts for more than 60 per cent of power generation in China, says the IEA. And despite the green tech boom, there are still concerns within China that renewable energy is not entirely reliable. That’s why coal plants are seen as a necessary backup option, said Gao Yuhe, the lead of low carbon energy development projects at Greenpeace Asia.

China has prioritized the green energy transition, but Gao says the government still considers the security of the electrical grid to be most important, particularly in light of recent extreme weather events. 

In the summer of 2022, a historic heat wave and drought ravaged China for more than 70 days, setting off wildfires, ruining crops and forcing local authorities to ration electricity as energy consumption soared.

That’s when China realized how vulnerable its grid was, said Gao. She said that provinces like Yunnan, a major producer of hydroelectricity, decided they could not rely on green power during an extreme drought.

“Local governments will choose coal power as their best solution,” Gao said. “They think … OK, we have to build up more coal power projects to make ourselves independent, to have enough energy supply.”

Still, Gao and Myllyvirta believe China could be well on its way in phasing out coal, provided its clean energy boom continues.

What does it mean if the world’s most populous country and largest carbon emitter could wean itself off coal soon, and lead the world in renewable energy?

For starters, it should give Canadians little excuse not to do more for the climate, said Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

“The ‘what about China?’ crowd tends to at least implicitly be saying either we should give up [on emissions reduction] or Canada should do nothing until China matches our ambition,” she said.

“Implicit in that argument is a message that, you know, Canada should somehow get a pass simply because our population is relatively low. But in fact, the average Canadian accounts for twice as many annual greenhouse gas emissions as the average Chinese.”

China’s reliance on coal has, at times, been used by supporters of liquefied natural gas to justify Canada’s production of the so-called transitional fuel. Last December, Kevin Falcon, the leader of the Opposition B.C. United Party, reiterated his support for LNG, saying it could be exported from B.C. to countries in Asia. 

In doing so, Falcon said Canada could “help the Chinese get off dirty, coal-fired power into a greener, cleaner power like LNG, reduce emissions globally, dramatically, and still make a contribution without killing our economy.”

There are eight LNG projects in different stages of development across Canada. But Harrison says China’s renewable energy expansion should encourage Canada to rethink its LNG ambitions.

Li Shuo, director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute, expects China will have little need for Canada’s LNG.

“I am just hoping for a leap directly from coal to renewable energy sources,” he said. 

Vivian Luk

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

Check out our podcast and radio show. This week: A mother’s fight for the right to clean air, after her daughter died from acute respiratory failure. What On Earth drops new podcast episodes every Wednesday and Saturday. You can find them on your favourite podcast app, or on demand at CBC Listen. The radio show airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here.

Reader feedback

In response to Dannielle Piper’s piece on religion trying to help students with climate anxiety, Chris Lemphers of Qualicum Beach, B.C., wrote: 

“In the Christian tradition, the Bible in the book of Genesis makes reference to creation stewardship. This is about caring and not ownership and exploitation. Although the natural environment can do quite well without human interference and in fact thrive, the reality is that humans have and can have an impact…. We need to recognize this and start the healing process through science and technology and the full recognition that we are only stewards of this planet Earth. On the spiritual level, we act from our individual stations in life. As we try to live in harmony with the natural world, our sense of hope will be sustained. This harmony is integral to finding spiritual meaning.”

A number of readers wrote in with concerns that some religions may be reassuring people that “their god can fix the problem, rather than focusing on the actual situation in the natural world,” as Peter Prontzos of Vancouver put it. He added, “We need a scientific, social and political focus, not a ‘spiritual’ approach to the ecological crisis.”

A 2022 Pew survey of Americans found that religious Americans were less likely to express concern about global warming, partly because many believe God is in control of the climate. Canadians were not surveyed, so it’s not clear if there are similar trends in Canada. 

For a future issue, we’re interested in your tips to live more sustainably and save money at the same time. Do you have some to share?

Write us at

Have a compelling personal story about climate change you want to share with CBC News? Pitch a First Person column here.

The Big Picture: A lake in the driest place in North America

Snow-capped mountains are reflected in a lake.

This desert lake is a rare sight in Death Valley, the driest place in North America. The lake forms in part of the valley in southeastern California, along the border with Nevada, called Badwater Basin — but very occasionally and only briefly, since the valley gets just 51 millimetres of rain each year. That’s nowhere near enough to keep up with evaporation in the hot, dry region. In 2005, the lake appeared for one week. But its latest appearance is extraordinary — as of last week, the lake was 30 centimetres deep and had been there whopping six months, thanks to 125 millimetres of rain, largely from two unusual downpours — the remains of Hurricane Hilary on Aug. 20, 2023, and an atmospheric river from Feb. 4 to 7, 2024.

Emily Chung

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Should Canada’s pension funds do more to fuel the energy transition?

A pumpjack draws out oil from a well head near Calgary in this file photo taken in September 2022.
A pumpjack draws out oil from a wellhead near Calgary. A majority of Canadian pension funds analyzed in a new report have at least one director or trustee who is also the director or executive of a fossil fuel company. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Canada’s largest pension funds, which hold trillions of dollars in assets combined, are trailing behind many international counterparts in the shift away from investments in fossil fuels, a new report has found.

The report, released by the advocacy group Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health, evaluated the policies of 11 of the country’s largest pension managers against international best practices, as well as global targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The report found that most of Canada’s pension managers still lag when it comes to climate commitments.

“What we’re seeing is progress, which is great to see, but the pace of that progress just isn’t fast enough to protect pensions and to align more broadly with climate goals,” Adam Scott, executive director of the advocacy group, said in an interview.

The report cites New York City pension funds, as well as others in France and the Netherlands, as examples of how to be more transparent about investments, help fund the renewable energy sector and use shareholder resolutions to demand climate action from companies.

Dutch fund PFZW recently divested its holdings in Europe’s biggest oil and gas companies, saying they are not reducing emissions fast enough.

In Canada, by contrast, four of the 11 pension funds listed still do not have emissions reductions targets for both 2030 and 2050. “Entanglements” may be part of the problem, according to the report. 

Seven of the 11 pension funds have at least one director or trustee who is also the director or executive of a fossil fuel company, the report said. 

For the second year in a row, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) scored highest in climate leadership among the funds analyzed.

The CDPQ, which has net assets totalling $434 billion, completely divested from oil production, refining and coal mining in 2022 and increased investments in low-carbon assets to $47 billion, according to the report.

The biggest improvements came from the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) and the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP), which released climate strategies in 2023.

The Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), which holds $158 billion in assets, ranked lowest for the second consecutive year.

The report said AIMCo “failed again to commit to measurable goals that could align its portfolio with climate safety.” AIMCo did not immediately return a request for comment.

“It’s our job to invest in places where we can make money for our clients, not to impose our values on our clients’ money,” Evan Siddall, AIMCo’s CEO, told the Financial Post in December. 

In February, AIMCo announced a new $1-billion fund dedicated to the energy transition and decarbonization.

The 11 pension funds in the report collectively manage more than $2.2 trillion in retirement savings on behalf of more than 27 million Canadians. 

The vast sums of money at stake have spurred debate over whether pension funds should take climate goals into consideration or whether their fiduciary duty rests solely in maximizing returns for beneficiaries.

New York City municipal workers sued pension funds last year, arguing managers were placing the climate over investment returns. 

Scott rejected the idea that divesting from fossil fuels could jeopardize retirement savings.

He pointed to a 2023 analysis by the University of Waterloo and the environmental group that found six major U.S. public pension funds would have seen a higher return on their investments had they divested from fossil fuels a decade ago.

Julie Segal, who specializes in financial regulation at the advocacy group Environmental Defence, said the report shows the need for greater regulation of the financial sector so that institutions are required to set clear, measurable climate targets. “Canada is very far behind on setting those rules for the financial sector and we need climate-aligned finance policy,” Segal said.

A recent World Bank report concluded that the global pension industry plays “a critical role in the transition to a low-carbon climate resilient economy” and that funds must “reinvent themselves to comply with their global presence and a definition of fiduciary duty aligned with today’s challenges.”

Benjamin Shingler

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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