What I Saw in China Will Help Change the World

Guilin, China

The country’s role in combating global climate change is more important than ever.

We got a timely alert on the growing dangers of climate change this week, when scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration teamed up with their counterparts from 61 other nations to report from the front lines of climate chaos in 2015.

Global temperatures set records on land and at sea. So did atmospheric levels of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which averaged 400.8 parts per million at the monitoring station at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. That’s a staggering 43 percent higher than when the Industrial Revolution ushered in the widespread burning of coal, gas, and oil.

The result: widespread hazard and harm worldwide.

Global sea level was the highest on record. Vast walrus herds were forced onto land as Arctic sea ice fell to 29 percent below average and warming waters drove out important fish like polar cod. Alpine glaciers retreated worldwide — for the 36th year in a row.

More than 2,500 people died in India when a heat wave sent temperatures soaring above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. There were 25 percent more tropical cyclones than average across the globe. And wildfires burned more than 10.1 million acres in the United States alone, the most since recordkeeping began 56 years ago.

Those are just a few snapshots from 2015, the hottest year on record. But wait: The first six months of this year have been even hotter — 0.36 of a degree Fahrenheit hotter, and a record 1.9 degrees above the 20th-century average.

Our earth is telling us every way it can: It’s time to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving climate chaos worldwide. It’s a global problem, and it needs a global fix.

That’s why I spent much of my recent visit to China learning more about what that country is doing to help fight this global scourge. NRDC has been working with China for 20 years. I wanted to get a firsthand look at the progress we’re making and the challenges ahead.

Rapid industrialization and decades of strong growth in China have come with enormous environmental challenges. Air pollution, for example, is blamed for 1 million premature deaths a year in China and for reducing life expectancy by nearly 25 months. In some of the country’s most heavily populated areas, more than 80 percent of the water from underground wells used in homes and factories and on farms has been polluted. And with its heavy dependence on coal, China alone accounts for 27 percent of the global carbon footprint.

What I saw on my trip, though, was a reminder that China is doing a lot to address its problems at home and to help fight climate change — starting with the wind turbines I saw from my train window as I traveled from Shanghai to Beijing.

China leads the world in clean power development from renewable sources like the wind and sun. Last year alone, China invested $111 billion — one-third of the world total — in wind, solar, and other renewable power sources.

The country’s leaders regard solar and wind power as strategic industries, and it’s easy to see why. That global market is huge. Some 64 percent of all the electricity-generating capacity added worldwide over the next 25 years will be powered by the wind and sun, Bloomberg projects, at an investment of nearly $7 trillion.

China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, part of which whisked me from Shanghai to Beijing in five hours on a smooth-as-silk ride at speeds that topped out at 186 miles per hour. Think of boarding a train in Washington, D.C., at breakfast time and arriving in Chicago in time for lunch.

China has invested more than $500 billion to build some 12,000 miles of high-speed railroad connecting nearly every city in the country with a population of half a million or more. The Chinese take four million high-speed rail trips every day, at a small fraction of the carbon footprint of equivalent air travel.

China’s electric utilities are urged by the government to collaborate with their customers to develop innovative ways to slow the growth in electricity demand. Zheng Qingrong, of the Shanghai Electric Corp., hosted me at the company’s gleaming new demand response center to explain a pilot project viewed as an early move in that direction. There, computerized technology is helping customers save money by shaving power consumption during periods when demand for electricity peaks. That means the company can serve more customers without building an excessive number of power plants.

China is also working to launch next year a cap-and-trade system that will create market incentives for Chinese industry to cut its carbon footprint, as the country’s special climate change envoy, Xie Zhenhua, explained to me in Beijing. Xie was a central player in global climate talks last year in Paris, where the United States, China, India, Brazil, and more than 180 other countries agreed to shift away, over time, from the dirty fossil fuels that are driving climate change and move to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.

That’s a promise we’ve made to our children, and it’s a promise we’re going to keep.

China has pledged to cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (sooner, if possible), and it’s beginning to make progress. For the first time since 1982 — essentially, the first time since China began to build a modern economy fueled by foreign investment — China has had back-to-back annual reductions in coal consumption. Its coal use fell 2.9 percent in 2014 and another 3.7 percent in 2015, even as its economy continued to grow — at a substantial 6.9 percent last year.

Here’s why China’s role is so important: China is doing something no other country in history has done. It is moving hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and into the global middle class. And it is doing it over the span of a single generation.

That growth has fueled a seemingly insatiable demand for energy. Most of that demand is met by fossil fuels. China burns as much coal, for example, as the rest of the world combined.

China eclipsed the United States several years ago as the world’s largest emitter of the carbon pollution that’s driving global climate change. The country kicked out about 9.7 billion tons of carbon emissions last year. While that was down about 1.5 percent from the year before, China still accounts for 27 percent of the global carbon footprint. Add to the that U.S. share — another 15.5 percent — and the two countries together produce about 43 percent of all global carbon pollution.

That’s why fixing this problem starts with our countries, the United States and China. And it’s one more reason I’m so proud of the work NRDC has done in China since first starting our clean energy efforts there 20 years ago.

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