For years now, China has been at the receiving end of stinging criticism from the West over its environmental policies, with critics describing it variously as one of the most polluted countries, an insatiable, consumer-driven energy guzzler, and the world’s worst emitter of greenhouse gases.
These labels have been prompted by China’s rapid industrialization and urbanization over the past 30 years, which has allowed it to achieve blistering economic growth, but at enormous cost to its environment. Given the widespread criticism, it’s understandable why many in the West might find it hard to imagine this ‘dirty’ giant ever getting clean.
Yet these difficulties shouldn’t overshadow an encouraging reality—China’s top decision makers are planning to take a more holistic approach to the quest for greener growth that could transform the country’s image.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
China’s central government is currently thrashing out details of how best to steer towards greener growth as part of closed-door discussions aimed at finalizing the country’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), which will be announced in March. The plan is expected to become China’s first national plan to shift the development agenda decisively toward a pattern of green growth, accelerating the country’s efforts at green modernization. Expect ‘establishing a low carbon society’ to be a key political slogan over the next five years.
With a limit to the amount of fossil fuel it can access, and with these fuels anyway creating significant environmental damage and associated socioeconomic problems, China’s top leadership seems to be realizing that the old ‘growth at all costs’ model that has previously been followed threatens not only the country’s energy security, but its very survival. A green development pathway based on low energy consumption and low carbon emissions is essential if China is to find a sustainable path to growth.
The environmental aspects of the plan are likely to be boiled down to five key points that will be presented to the public and used to measure China’s success in achieving its ambitious targets.
First, the government is believed to be considering using green indices as a yardstick for evaluating the performance of local officials. Water consumption per unit of GDP, proportion of clean coal consumption utilized, and the proportion of GDP invested in environmental protection will all be integrated into the indices. The idea is that this will force local governments to strengthen resource efficiency and improve ecofriendliness in key sectors such as heavy industry, construction, and transportation. Gone will be the days when the rate of GDP growth is the sole determinant of success.
Second, China aims to gradually establish a carbon trading system to help it meet its 2020 carbon intensity target of reducing CO2 emissions as a proportion of each unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent of 2005 levels. Policymakers are expected to view carbon trading as a market-oriented, cost-effective way of supplementing current administrative measures to reduce emissions and genuinely shift the country’s ‘brown’ economy to a ‘green’ one. A cap-and-trade market is also expected to be up and running by 2014, while over the next couple of years, carbon trading programmes will most likely focus on pilot schemes in economic zones and/or industrial sectors such as the coal-fire power generation sector.