China's Potential Pitfalls #1: The Environment


After enjoying rapid development for nearly 40 years, China is at a turning point in terms of both economic growth and social development. In this series, Dr. Xue Li examines the five most critical challenges and potential pitfalls China faces today.

Environmental pollution is the great challenge that China must face during its next stage of development. Everyone has gradually come to realize this, though some local governments persist in taking the view that development must have top priority. Other localities however, are already willing to sacrifice some economic development for the sake of the environment. Even some of China’s less-developed regions are consciously choosing low-pollution means of economic development.

From the experience of developed countries, we know that remediating pollution problems and restoring the environment is possible but expensive. That means China’s environmental problems, to an extent, can only be solved by further economic development.

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Although China’s economy has seen a long-term period of rapid growth, the process of industrialization is still incomplete, while urbanization has even further to go. Thus China’s overall energy consumption as well as its per capita energy use are both rising. Yet China has already pledged that its carbon dioxide emissions will peak by 2030, with a concerted effort toward reaching peak emissions even sooner. Also by 2030, China plans to have non-fossil fuels account for 20 percent of its total energy use (in 2013, non-fossil fuels made up 9.6 percent of China’s energy use).

This makes it clear that the Chinese government has already realized that, although adjusting the makeup of its energy consumption is difficult, it must be done. But because there still isn’t enough recognition of the problem – and because of entangled bureaucratic interests – China still must take further steps to strengthen the implementation of these changes to its energy matrix.

First, China must be firm and resolute in its determination to lower the proportion of coal in China’s total energy consumption. China must lower the proportion of coal from 67.5 percent of China’s total energy use in 2013 to less than 40 percent, and the sooner the better – by 2030 at the latest. China is already the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and accounts for over half of global coal consumption. Coal is a carbon-intensive source of energy; the current measures to clean up coal (such as the coal chemical industry) are only diverting the pollution problem. Meanwhile, carbon sequestration, through helpful in reducing pollution, is prohibitively expensive (and has its own hidden costs).

The main reason is it so difficult to reduce the proportion of coal is that coal is so cheap. But this doesn’t take into account the costs of environmental pollution, and the harm caused to human health. China should realize that, if it hopes to significantly reduce environmental pollution caused by energy use and realistically achieve the goal of sustainable development, reducing coal use is the best choice.

What can China use to replace coal? I’ve researched this topic before, and there are a number of possibilities: natural gas being the most promising, followed by nuclear power, then hydropower, wind power, solar power, and bioenergy.

Of all the fossil fuels, natural gas is the best choice – obviously better than coal, but also preferable to oil. The proportion of natural gas in China’s energy consumption should rise from 5.1 percent in 2013 to 30 percent or higher, surpassing oil (which accounted for 17.8 percent of energy consumption in 2013). Nuclear energy, meanwhile, should rise from 0.9 percent to 10 percent or more of China’s total energy use. Many people oppose nuclear energy use, but the undeniable fact is that after a comprehensive look at the technological level required, environmental protection concerns, safety, and economic factors, nuclear power is second only to natural gas as an energy choice.

Hydropower is clean energy, but it already accounts for 7.2 percent of China’s total energy consumption; there’s no room for more large-scale growth. Currently, wind, solar, and bioenergy sources combined account for only 1.5 percent of China’s energy use. For a high-energy using country like China, it will be hard to use these three as primary energy sources, but bioenergy has the greatest long-term potential for development.

The next potential pitfall: China’s political and economic models

Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Translation courtesy of Gao Dawei.

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