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Sun. December 09, 2018
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Dr. Carla Freeman is Associate Director of the China Studies Program and Professorial Lecturer at th

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By Dr. Carla Freeman


Having emerged as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China faces high international expectations for its role in any solution to address climate change. China also recognizes that it will be hard hit by the impact of climate change and is thus also an important stakeholder in international efforts to mitigate the effects of human activity on the planet's climate patterns. At the same time, despite China's rising economic power and global influence, it remains a developing country, with hundreds of millions of its citizens still living in abject poverty. The global economic crisis has tested the capacity of China's leaders to sustain the high-speed industrial growth that has brought rising prosperity to increasing numbers of its citizens, raising the specter of rising unemployment and with it social and political instability for the one-party state. Yet, particularly in the last decade, this growth has been driven by highly energy intensive industries, powered overwhelmingly by China's relatively bountiful domestic supply of coal. As a result, Chinese production is highly carbon-intensive. It is clear that to be part of the climate change solution that international consensus urges immediate implementation, China is going to have to change this pattern. How will China contend with this convergence of pressures to sustain national economic growth amid the still anemic international economy, on the one hand, and, on the other, take meaningful action on climate change?

Historically, China has been unwilling to sacrifice economic growth for environmental protection. Mao Zedong made the total mastery of China's natural environment a dimension of his revolutionary vision for China-- one of his slogans declared that "man must conquer nature." Although the post-Mao era has been characterized by commitments to environmental protection in principle, however, the policies that have followed have been weakly implemented in practice. China was the first country to publish an Agenda 21 White Paper on sustainable development following the Rio Summit, for example, and the importance of developing sustainably was acknowledged at China's Fifteenth Party Congress of 1997. In response to the Asian financial crisis that began that year, however, the government implemented a fiscal stimulus that channeled investment into capital-intensive infrastructure and heavy industry. This helped reverse a previous trend of declining energy intensity and accelerated China's contribution to global greenhouse emissions, among other deleterious consequences for China's natural environment.

China's 11th Five Year Program (2006-2010) for economic development appeared to mark a new chapter in China's approach to growth, however, making sustainable growth or "scientific development" an important emphasis and, with this, including aggressive targets for resource conservation and the reduction of pollution. Since the 11th FYP was launched, China's government has introduced many new policies to better balance economic growth and environmental management. In 2007, for example, it issued the National Climate Change plan, describing national policies and specific objectives associated with national efforts to combat climate change while committing to integrating climate change into other related policies. It has also pursued an ambitious target to reduce energy intensity, revising its Energy Efficiency Law, and along with this has invested significantly in "clean energy," including hydropower, wind, and solar energy, as well as remarkable levels of investment in new nuclear power, with estimates that between 60 and 75 new nuclear plants could be constructed by 2020. It has also poured considerable investment into R&D for electric vehicles, set energy efficiency targets for buildings, pushed for the installation and operation of desulfurization units in coal-fired power plants, and established energy efficiency targets for the country's "Top 1000 Energy-Consuming Enterprises," which collectively account for about one-third of China's total energy consumption. These policies and projects appear to have yielded impressive results. According to some estimates, it now spends about $9 billion each month on renewable energy development, doubling its wind power capacity each year since the 11th Five Year program was initiated. By closing numerous inefficient coal-powered plants, it boosted average efficiencies of its coal power plants, while also emerging as the world leader in the construction of hot-steam and other cleaner coal-fired power plants. Its national fuel economy standards for vehicles now exceed those of the United States. It has also pursued its goal of developing low-carbon manufacturing by establishing special low-carbon manufacturing zones in several provinces. These are just some of the outcomes of its push for greener, more climate-friendly growth of the past several years.

Since the current global financial crisis began, China's leadership has repeatedly restated its commitment to continuing its efforts to develop more sustainably, even in the face of the threat the crisis has posed to China's economic growth. For example, China's government has highlighted its target of reducing the energy intensity of its GDP growth by 20 percent from 2006 to 2010 and has promised that it will remain vigilant about emissions reductions and other aspects of environmental protection. While Beijing's commitment to greener growth may not have changed in principle, however, some observers have raised concerns that environmental goals are being pushed aside in the interest of achieving the country's minimum 8 percent target for economic expansion -- the level that its policymakers believe is necessary to provide jobs for the tens of millions of new laborers entering the job market each year. China’s RMB4 trillion stimulus package initially included RMB350 billion dedicated to "sustainable development;" this was later reduced to RMB210 billion, with funds shifted into allocations for "social welfare" and "technology advances." After the government launched its stimulus plan, moreover, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) accelerated the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, as the MEP's official spokesperson put it, in order to "open a ’green passage’ to projects that are deemed to have the effect of boosting domestic demand..." Others have reported that local officials are relaxing environmental standards, and even waiving EIAs, to speed implementation of local projects that will boost local growth and create jobs.

In addition, while Beijing's fiscal stimulus includes a substantial allocation for what might be called "green investment," in general it bears a close family resemblance to the stimulus associated with the Asian Financial crisis with its heavy emphasis on fixed investment, with infrastructure spending and related heavy industries still reaping the lion's share, raising concern by some experts that China's progress toward reducing its energy intensity of production could be derailed. The positive effect of China's stimulus spending on Chinese economic production is in fact associated with the sustained rise in global emissions in 2008, despite the drop in emissions from the United States and other large developed economies that went along with the sharp downturn in economic activity last year.

The announcement by China in late November of its first greenhouse gas target aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels says much about how China is prepared to contribute to tackling climate change while pursuing its economic growth objectives. The announcement of targets signals that China is serious about contributing international efforts to mitigate climate change, setting the stage for a constructive role by China in substantive negotiations on at least an interim climate change agreement in Copenhagen. It also implies, however, that the scope of China's international commitments will be limited. China's State Council accompanied its pledge with the caveat that this was "a voluntary action taken by the Chinese government based on its own national conditions..." The emphasis on "national conditions" recalls China's insistence in the discussions leading up to Copenhagen that any agreement must continue to reflect the principle that distinguished the action expected of developed from developing countries in the Kyoto Treaty of "common but differentiated responsibilities." At the same time, more positively for Copenhagen, the reference to "national conditions" also opens the door to a discussion of how its exceptional national capabilities relative to other developing states might factor into a climate change agreement. The conceptualization in the Kyoto agreement of different commitments for different levels of national development was, in fact, the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities [emphasis added]" for participating countries.

China in fact faces many structural hurdles constrain its capacity to contain its emissions, both in the short run and in the longer term. Its energy mix is the greatest of these. China aspires to produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and certainly seems on track to exceed its original target of 15% by that period. New transnational energy pipelines constructed as part of China's efforts to improve its energy security will also increase the currently very small share of cleaner, natural gas in its energy mix. Most analysts, however, expect the relative abundance and low cost of coal in China to continue to make it the preferred source for China's energy production, supplying at least half of China's energy for the next several decades. Even if China builds on recent enterprise bankruptcies and the leverage represented by the investment associated with its economic stimulus funding to begin to restructure its economy away from energy intensive production toward cleaner, more high-tech industries, a "low carbon growth" path for China will be heavily dependent on the utilization of technologies to mitigate carbon emissions from coal. Ensuring that such technologies are more widely available and that they are installed and utilized will also be vital to lowering China's emissions.

In addition, while China has refused to accept fixed caps on greenhouse gas emissions, its willingness to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions as part of an international agreement requires that it have the capacity to measure and enforce, and that it has a verification process for its reductions in which the international community can have confidence. Currently, China's statistical system contains many weaknesses, and its data collection on energy use is no exception. China's localities are notorious for fabricating data to meet national targets or paying lip service to central government directives. China needs to develop both its statistical and governance capacity to actually achieve its carbon reduction goals.

These are among the areas where international financing, technology transfer, and technical support for emissions reductions, along with deeper United States-China cooperation on climate change, can play a vital role in enhancing China's potential success in reducing its carbon emissions. Although China's remarkable financial resources suggest that it will have a very limited need for direct international financing for climate change mitigation and adaptation than most developing countries, internationally-financed programs can provide it with access to the best international practices while even limited international financing to China's less developed regions in particular can help incentivize participation and compliance by Chinese localities. In addition, international financing for and cooperation on carbon-reducing technologies could seed greater Chinese investment in them, speeding the deployment of such technology as carbon capture and storage and, given the likely large scale of this deployment in China, potentially help lower their cost and facilitate their global distribution.

The plan for cooperation between the US and China on clean energy and climate change announced in Beijing in November 2009 by President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama offers a menu of areas for bilateral cooperation between the two countries on global climate change mitigation. This includes cooperating on a greenhouse gas inventory, jointly financing research on clean energy, and technical cooperation in the areas of electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. Skeptics worry that such cooperation will merely put the U.S. in the position of subsidizing China's ability to leapfrog technologically, eroding the US competitive advantage in many of these advanced technologies and unduly boosting China's relative global economic might. If such bilateral cooperation is undergirded by multilateral efforts to boost the measurability and verifiability of China's emissions reductions efforts, however, this cooperation can contribute to generating new low-carbon commercial activity in both countries. Interest in the commercial potential of lower carbon production, along with concern about the potential for carbon tariffs by the United States (and others), have already led China to step up planning for an eventual domestic carbon tax to help it reduce its carbon intensity.

The current economic crisis is certainly testing China's stated commitments to a greener, more sustainable and climate-friendly development path. Spurred by its recognition that it will be a beneficiary of international efforts to mitigate climate change-- to which it must contribute if they are to have a chance of success, however, China seems intent on pursuing policies to reduce its greenhouse emissions if not absolutely in the coming decades, at least relative to economic output. These policies in combination with stimulus spending and the prospect for both public and private international cooperation are playing an important role in increasing the potential that China ‘s efforts to curb emissions will grow even amid today’s challenging global economy.


Dr. Carla Freeman is Associate Director of the China Studies Program and Professorial Lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Dr. Freeman Has held various academic positions, including director of the program in global studies and international affairs at Alverno College in Milwaukee and visiting scholar at the University of Wisconsin; served as program officer for civil community, leading programs on community development and international civil society at Wingspread of The Johnson Foundation; served as political risk analyst on China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam; current projects include work on the external relations of China's provinces, ongoing research on China's northeast region and China's environmental policy; Ph.D., China studies, SAIS. Dr. Freeman has also published numerous journal articles, papers and reviews, including "The Real Bridge to Nowhere: China's North Korea Policy," for United States Insittutes of Peace (2009); "Urban Revolution and Social Change in Contemporary China," in SAIS Review (2009)

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