A Birthday Wish List

China’s Climate Challenge and the Next 60 Years

Julian L. Wong on China's climate challenge and the next 60 years on its 60th anniversary.

Chinese workers prepare decorations ahead of the 60th National Day celebrations in Beijing, China. (AP/Ng Han Guan)
Chinese workers prepare decorations ahead of the 60th National Day celebrations in Beijing, China. (AP/Ng Han Guan)

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The first 30-year phase was one of revolution, marked by one bloody internal purge after another, but the next 30-year phase was one of pragmatism, which underpinned economic and social reform leading to unrivaled rates of economic growth.

China now finds itself at a crossroads. As the country struggles to come to terms with its imminent status as a global superpower, it is staring in the face of vast, systemic resource challenges. China faces a triple threat to its energy, water, and food security, and there is one common thread: climate change.

In the case of energy, an overexploitation of coal—and increasingly oil—to fuel its economic expansion is the root cause of rapid growth of greenhouse gas emissions. The resulting change in climate is in turn altering precipitation patterns, leading to flash floods in some areas but exacerbating droughts in large parts of others, an urgent predicament for a many land-locked regions that are already water-scarce. Such water scarcity, together with noxious acid rain caused by fossil fuel combustions, will in turn choke off agricultural productivity, threatening future food supplies.

This food-water-energy “trilemma” will threaten physical security and disrupt economic and social stability, which is the very foundation of the China Communist Party’s authority. Beijing fully grasps these implications and has turned its stance from one of climate denier to that of an emerging frontrunner in climate action in just a few years. Few noticed in 2007 when President Hu Jintao espoused the goal of creating an “ecological civilization” that strikes harmony between man and nature. It would be easy to chalk this up as just another example of the central government’s colorful slogans. Yet, action has followed rhetoric.

China has embarked on some of the world’s most aggressive energy efficiency, renewable energy development and reforestation programs through its landmark National Climate Change Program of 2007. Over the five-year period ending 2010, it plans to reduce its energy consumption per unit of its gross domestic product by 20 percent, obtain 10 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil fuel sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower, and bulk up its carbon sinks by increasing forest cover to 20 percent.

What’s more, President Hu has just announced intentions for China to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP from 2005 levels by a “notable margin” by 2020. Recognizing the strategic job-creating opportunities of innovating, manufacturing, deploying and disseminating the clean-energy technologies of the future, President Hu also pledged to transform China into a “green economy, low-carbon economy and circular economy.”

China’s tide of Western-style development will still be difficult to stem. When I visited Beijing earlier this month with a delegation from the Center for American Progress, both State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua of the National Reform and Development Commission assured us that China would not take the traditional energy-intensive development path. Yet even with its lofty green goals, it is difficult to imagine how it has not already.

China is already the world’s biggest market for building construction and automobile sales. This situation is unlikely to change. China is witnessing the largest scale of human migration in the history of civilization, with 350 million rural residents moving to the city by 2030. And this urbanization is coming with a shift in emphasis from exports to domestic consumption as an engine of future economic growth.

China will have to take at least three major steps to truly develop a green, low-carbon and circular economy:

1. Show bold, visionary leadership to set China on a long-term path to reduce absolute emissions, not just emissions per unit of GDP.

China believes that the West needs to take the lead to solve the problem that it created when it comes to climate change and emissions reductions. This position is understandable, but China must acknowledge that in reality it cannot wait for others to look out for what is in its own interests. World leaders continue to work out the complex structures for international climate financing and technology transfer, while the science urgently requires a collective reduction in emissions as soon as possible. If China is serious about its July commitment to limit global temperature rise to 2°C, it has to follow up on recent indications of willingness to act by accordingly fixing a future date and level at which its carbon emissions peak and subsequently decline.

2. Develop tools to help the country achieve this bold new vision.

China needs to continue to strengthen its accountability mechanisms and create channels for increased information flow to ensure that its national plans are implemented locally. The government can meaningfully engage and mobilize civil society groups as partners, rather than treat them as annoyances, to facilitate the measurable, reportable, and verifiable implementation of government actions. Such partnerships might include crafting purposeful campaigns targeted at the business community and citizens to educate them about the comprehensive benefits of creating a clean energy economy. The central government has already demonstrated progress in these areas by, for instance, increasing penalties for false statistical reporting and enacting a law on open government information, but it can do more.

3. Collaborate with the international community in a comprehensive manner.

Cooperation with the international community should not focus merely on joint research, development, and deployment on important carbon abatement technologies. China and the United States, for instance, can enhance trading relationships and unlock vast, lucrative markets for technology commercialization in both countries by coordinating on reducing barriers to market access, such as high tariffs on clean-energy technologies and restrictive foreign investment policies. Jointly building capacity for real-time emissions, monitoring and reporting, and enhancing efforts in energy modeling and simulation can greatly inform energy and climate policymakers. Climate collaboration opportunities exist even on the military-to-military level—coordination in disaster relief activities and in addressing other non-traditional security threats posed by climate change can yield mutually beneficial learning and capacity-building results.

Addressing climate change will be the fundamental challenge for China over its next 60 years. It will give China an opportunity to combine central elements of its historical development—a new low-carbon vision that is revolutionary in its transformation, but also pragmatic in its approach to enable a real and measurable low-carbon reform. The best birthday gift the international community can give to China is to walk with it hand-in-hand down this low-carbon path through the adoption of robust domestic climate measures and by forging ahead to build consensus on a sound global climate deal at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen and beyond.

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