China’s Climate Change Paradox

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China’s Climate Change Paradox

It is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but recent shifts in China give cause for hope.

China’s Climate Change Paradox
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The UN Climate Summit in New York, a key meeting before the much hyped United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference next year in Paris, has now concluded with the usual mix of strong rhetoric and limited action.

Going forward, the goal is to agree to a comprehensive and legally binding deal to reduce carbon emissions. It is widely understood that China will play a key role in determining the chances of achieving this goal, given its position as the dominant voice among developing countries, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and, somewhat paradoxically, a forerunner in developing renewable energies that will underpin the green economies of the future.

The 2009 meeting in Copenhagen was the last to be built up as the defining moment where a comprehensive legally binding deal would be agreed. It ended with only a weak document and blame being apportioned all round. It was a lesson in the dangers of pinning too much hope on one meeting. More than a year out from the Paris meeting, though, and there is a risk of the same thing happening. The primary sticking point at previous climate meetings has been a lack of compromise between economically “developed” and “developing” countries, with arguments over historic emissions, climate justice and current and future emissions.

China occupies a unique position as it is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, while still considered to be a developing country. The claim that it has a “right” to develop, which inevitably leads to higher emissions, is a strong one given the historic emissions of the largely post­industrial West, particularly when you consider that China’s per capita emissions (7 metric tons) are lower than the likes of the U.S. (17 metric tons), Australia (16 metric tons) and Germany (9 metric tons). Looking at per capita emissions is important as no country wants to concede competitive advantage to another, which provides yet another stumbling block to any climate deal. In terms of a climate agreement, however, total emissions are more important than per capita emissions and being the largest emitter puts the onus on China to consider its global environmental impact and assume responsibility.

Closer to home though, it’s the local impacts of China’s energy use that is making the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) take notice. In 2012, China consumed almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined, just shy of 4 billion tons. The use of coal has come to define China as consumption has sky-rocketed since the turn of the century, combined with rapid industrialization. It is this industrialization that has led to the raft of pollution problems experienced throughout the country. A study released earlier this year showed that almost 20 percent of Chinese farmland is polluted by toxic metals, with knock-on effects for agricultural production, food safety, and the health of locals. Water pollution is another serious problem, with over half of groundwater sites estimated to be of “poor” or “very poor” quality. Most notoriously is the dramatic increase in air pollution. Levels of PM 2.5 particulates are consistently recorded at severe levels across the country, posing a serious health problem, with a strong correlation between levels of PM 2.5 and morbidity, with a rising incidence of illnesses such as respiratory disease and lung cancer. A deteriorating environment and a growing awareness of such troubles has led to protests in some areas, which will no doubt intensify if the situation doesn’t improve. The CCP will be aware of this; economic growth has largely kept the population content but it can no longer be at any cost.

Despite China’s reliance on fossil fuels, poor environmental record, and reputation as a roadblock on the path to an emissions reduction deal, it has been a strong advocate for the development of renewable energy technology. This serves to muddy the waters when it comes to blaming China for potentially condemning the world to dangerous climate change. There is no doubt that rapidly transitioning to a green economy will mitigate the impacts of climate change and China is leading the way. Last year, the world installed 39 gigawatts of solar generation capacity, with a third of that coming from China. China is now the world’s largest solar market with solar finance last year equaling that of the whole of Europe at $23.5 billion. In terms of total investment, China dwarfs most of the world at $54 billion, with only the U.S. ($36 billion) and Japan ($29 billion) the other countries investing more than $13 billion. This scale of investment serves to drive the renewable sector forward and contribute to falling production costs, making renewable electricity cheaper and thus more cost effective. This is a one-way trend that will put stress on the cost-effectiveness of fossil fuels in the future as extraction costs rise and renewables become more dominant in the energy market. China’s contribution to the development of renewable technology is important as it will encourage and facilitate the adoption of these technologies, contributing to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

The CCP primarily handles this paradox by prioritizing economic growth, which it views as essential for preventing discontent, although increasing concern for the environment shows that economic growth and citizens’ satisfaction are not always mutually exclusive. Lynette Ong, Political Scientist and China specialist from the University of Toronto has said that the CCP is showing an increased awareness of the costs of environmental degradation and that this has been translated into policy, yet local officials will need to buy into any changes for them to be successful. Earlier this year, China introduced the most sweeping changes to its environmental law in 25 years, but they don’t come into force until the beginning of next year so it will be some time before their relative success can be measured.

Developing substantial renewable energy capacity will allow China to maintain economic growth as it gradually uses less coal and there are suggestions that China’s coal use is peaking and will drop in the coming years. When it comes to developing renewables, maintaining economic growth is a prominent factor but it will also begin to address some concerns over pollution, allowing the CCP to consolidate its mandate.

In the international arena, China’s tough stance on reducing emissions centers on the view that it is still developing so it has a right to source economic growth from fossil fuel use until it has the ability to safely and cheaply transition to a green economy without conceding competitiveness. This stance can be viewed as an assertion of sovereignty backed by its growing global influence; hence, pressuring China to commit to a legally binding deal is likely to be counter­productive.

At a recent BASIC meeting (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), the group reiterated the need for developed nations to “walk the talk” and commit to capitalization of the Green Climate Fund, designed to provide support for developing countries that lack the financial capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The group also mentioned that anything agreed via the Durban Platform would need to be based on “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR) which states that all countries have a shared interest in protecting the environment but have different responsibilities depending on capacity to act and historic emissions. Many developed nations view this as problematic and outdated as it was formulated in 1992 when the geopolitical reality was different and the link between climate change and development was less developed.

As it happened, the climate summit in New York saw pledges of $1.3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, with an additional $1 billion pledged before the gathering. Notably the U.S. has not made a financial commitment. This remains far short of the amount wanted by BASIC. Further pledges could ease relations in the run up to the crucial meeting in Paris next year. Carbon pricing was also on the agenda at the UN summit, and although again U.S. participation remains a non-starter, China is playing a key role with plans to introduce a national scheme in 2016.

China’s climate change paradox is threatening the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit for reducing the likelihood of dangerous climate change while at the same time laying the foundations for the green economies of the future. It is important that developed nations work with China to tackle climate change by considering a range of options, as it is almost certain that both sides will have to offer difficult concessions if there is to be a comprehensive climate deal. China offers both hope and despair when it comes to tackling climate change and despite the possibility that the 2015 climate deal may be less effective than hoped, emissions can be reduced via other means, harboring potential for action beyond Paris 2015.

Stephen Junor writes on the rise of BRICS and geopolitics.