China Steps Forward on Climate Change

I recently visited China to meet with several of NRDC’s local partners and to participate in an international meeting that was part of a process to produce a global standard on energy management.

In my ten days in Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Beijing, I observed some very positive steps that China is taking to protect its local environment and to cut its greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Both are important goals. China is suffering greatly from the high costs associated with inefficient energy utilization: both high direct energy costs and excessive emissions. Unnecessary electricity production to power inefficient industries and buildings is one of the main causes of air pollution. You can see the pollution in most of my pictures (except for the first three days) (see especially the last 8 pictures).

In addressing these problems, China has recognized that efficiency is the biggest, cheapest, greenest, and fastest-to-build energy resource, and is working to accelerate the progress of efficiency technologies in all sectors. China is looking at international best practices to help guide its policies. As part of this effort I made presentations and engaged in policy discussions with several research institutes that have strong influence in setting government policy.

China is pursuing a wide variety of projects at the neighborhood, local, provincial, and national levels that greatly enhance economic development while cutting greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. In Shanghai, we met with the developers of Baoshan (see pictures 3-12), the site of a now-dismantled steel mill that was once of the worst polluters in the city. The site is now being redeveloped using green buildings and new transit access into a green-tech industrial park that will also incorporate commercial and residential uses. The buildings you see are renovated, energy efficient display spaces. We later met with officials in charge of the Suzhou Industrial Park area, which is a MUCH bigger project that will eventually house a million people (pictures 58-64), and also features green buildings. I spoke with these officials about enhancing the location efficiency of the development, which had not been a planning goal, although the project is not bad with location efficiency even by accident.

We also met with institutes specializing in buildings in order to develop state-of-the-art rating and labeling methods and utility-sponsored efficiency programs based on whole-building performance. These institutes are confronting the exact same issues and problems that the U.S. is facing at the Department of Energy and in the U.S. Green Buildings Council, so international exchange is especially valuable.

International harmonization on equipment standards is also a win-win for nations that participate because harmonization makes it easier to get the highest levels of technology for products such as TVs, computers, light bulbs, etc., that are essentially the same products around the world. I met with the Chinese National Institute of Standards (CNIS) to move this effort forward.

My final week in China was devoted to work on the upcoming International Standard ISO 50001. This standard will require continual improvement in energy performance as demonstrated by data collection and analysis. Results from application of similar national energy management standards and programs as well as the draft ISO 50001, have demonstrated facility wide improvements in energy intensity, primarily from operating improvements, of 5-15%. Since ISO 50001 will be an international standard, organizations with facilities in, say, both China and the U.S., can employ the same methods in all of their plants to encourage energy efficiency.

These policies show how much progress can be made on meeting climate goals even without a binding agreement on an emissions cap. In California, the Air Resources Board has estimated that over 80% of the emissions reductions needed to reach the ambitious 2020 goal established by AB32 will be achieved by financial incentives and regulation related to energy and location efficiency, and only the residual achieved by cap-and-trade. (But don’t forget that a key reason the incentives and regulations are as ambitious as they are is the recognized necessity of meeting the statewide emissions target.)

In China, binding emissions limits, even in the short term, would not make sense, because no one can accurately forecast the country’s level of economic development in 2020 (much less 2050). Setting a goal that is too loose would generate a lot of “hot air”: where real emissions that are a lot lower than the target and consequently wasteful tradeoffs are allowed or even encouraged. But setting a goal that is too tight would force China to make cuts that go beyond those achievable by a clean energy investment strategy. Such cuts would reinforce the erroneous perception that meeting critical development goals such as poverty alleviation is in tension with cutting pollution.

In fact, to tackle climate change and also to maintain its world-leading pace of economic development, China must rapidly transition to a cleaner development path through initiatives in areas such as efficiency and renewable energy. Achieving this path will require strong commitments from government and the private sector. Encouragingly, I am seeing more and more such commitments.