China far better than it’s reputation?

7. Dezember 2015 HW

Polluted air, highest CO2 emissions world wide and heavily relying on coal - for many years this has been the world’s image of China’s environmental status. A most recent study published by China Dialogue shows that China has to offer much more than that.

China has become the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, and has rapidly restrained and apparently reversed its previous growth in coal consumption. More fundamentally, the costs of renewable energy have plummeted in the last few years, driven in large part by competition with chinese manufacturers. The report, that was published by China Dialogue in association with the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and Low Carbon Innovation in China, expects China to become the dominant supplier of products for the global low-carbon economy of the near future, with all the economic rewards that will bring. Beside that the authors are convinced that China’s embrace of a low-carbon development model could create incentives for other countries to move in a similar direction.

Questions remain: what is the progress of China’s efforts to decarbonise its economy? And what is driving the shift?

China’s move into the direction of a low carbon eceonomy has a long history. Already back in 2004, China announced its Medium and Long-Term Plan to 2020 would include energy intensity reduction targets for the first time. The following year, the country’s Renewable Energy Law entered into force. The 11th Five Year Plan, from 2006 to 2010, was the first to contain binding national targets on energy intensity and reduction of major pollutants. In 2007, China issued the first national climate change plan of any developing country.

Despite these efforts, China became the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007 and since then its emissions have continued to rise. China’s total emissions currently far outstrip those of the United States, the second largest emitter. According to the report China’s per-capita GDP had risen to $7,485 by 2014 and its total energy consumption to 3.75 billion tonnes of coal equivalent.

Thus it was a major turning point when China promised in 2009 to reduce “emissions intensity” – the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of GDP. Its target of a 40-45% cut by 2020 placed it among the more ambitious nations in the developing world. Six years on, emissions intensity has been reduced by 33%, and China is broadly on course to meet its 2020 target.

In 2012, China also first offered to support South-South cooperation on climate, with $10 million in funding. By 2015 this has risen to a total of $5.1 billion to help developing countries tackle climate change and development problems, in two large pledges from President Xi Jinping – one announced during his visit to the United States in September and another at the UN General Assembly, focused on the post-2015 Development Agenda.

In November 2014, President Xi pledged that China would peak its carbon emissions by 2030, with efforts to peak earlier. It also wants to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 20% by 2030.

In June 2015, China submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UN climate convention (UNFCCC). In doing so it clarified that this also entails an improvement of 60-65% in emissions intensity by 2030 (on a 2005 baseline).

Taken together, these statements and pledges indicate that China’s position at the UN Climate Summit talks has moved on hugely in the last six years since Copenhagen. China’s new approach rests on the fact that its leaders see combatting climate change as being in the national interest. Growing public environmental protests on the streets and in chinese media might also have pushed this process.

Photos: Paul Langrock