China can rise to the challenge on climate change and air pollution

This post was co-written with Princeton-in-Asia Fellow Judy Li.

Next week in New York, national leaders from around the world will gather for a Climate Summit to announce their countries’ actions and contributions for strengthening global efforts to tackle climate change. Zhang Gaoli, the Vice Premier in charge of China’s climate policy, will be representing China at the summit. When he takes the podium, he will be speaking on behalf of a country that is the world’s largest energy user and carbon emitter, and that is on the front lines of dealing with the pollution from fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and developing technologies and policies to grow in a cleaner, more sustainable way.

Since its reform and opening more than thirty years ago, and particularly in the past decade, China’s rapid economic development has raised income levels and the standard of living of its citizens. But it has come at an enormous cost to the environment and public health, due in large part to China’s high dependency on coal to power its power plants and industry, and its increasing consumption of oil to feed the world’s largest automobile market. Last year, China consumed some 3.6 billion tons of coal, approximately half of global consumption. That reliance on coal powered nearly 70% of its energy and has led to air pollution levels many times the WHO recommended guidelines based upon what is safe for citizens. This pollution causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year.

China has put in place arguably the world’s largest energy efficiency and renewable energy programs – it installed more wind turbines and more solar PV last year than any other country. It has broken all kinds of records in terms of renewable energy deployment. Yet, its continued reliance on coal remains its major energy and climate challenge.  Recognizing this, the State Council, China’s cabinet, made establishing a medium and long term national coal cap target a key goal of its air pollution action plan last September, a goal that was reinforced again in the latest draft of the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law released last week. China is seeking to reduce the share of coal in primary energy to less than 65% by 2017 and should seek to reduce it to less than 60% by 2020.

To do this, China will need to scale up the existing regional coal cap targets in three key air pollution regions to a national coal cap target that can peak coal consumption in China by 2020, and that includes strengthened clean energy measures, coal reduction and clean energy development and financing plans, and market mechanisms to achieve this target. The national coal cap target must be a mandatory target, one that local governments and enterprises are responsible for achieving and one that will spur new investments in efficiency and cleaner energy. 

China has also announced its intention to develop a national carbon cap and trade market by 2016, integrating the experiences from its current seven pilot trading programs, which will be important for putting a price on carbon and driving investment even more strongly to clean energy technologies. Combining a national coal cap target and putting a price on coal through a national cap and trade program and/or a carbon tax will quicken the pace of China’s energy transition and clean technology scale-up and will be important for shifting China’s economy to more balanced development.

China could also make clear its ambitions to contribute to the global fight against climate change next week by re-emphasizing its commitment to work with the US and other countries on setting a schedule for the global phasedown of HFCs, super greenhouse gases used in the air conditioning, refrigeration and foam sector. The Obama Administration this week announced new efforts by US industry and the federal government to move forward on finding alternatives to highly warming HFCs, and China’s government could similarly strengthen the coordination of industry and government efforts to move to climate-friendly refrigerants and alternatives to HFCs.

Along with its rapid economic development, China has also experienced the fastest urbanization process the world has ever seen, and another 300 million rural dwellers – nearly the population of the entire US – are expected to move to cities by 2050. The increases in rural to urban land conversion, automobiles, infrastructure construction, and industrial energy use have made China’s urbanization process a large contributor of carbon emissions. But China is now taking steps to develop lower-carbon cities by renovating existing urban areas and applying sustainable development principles to new areas to reduce their carbon footprint.

NRDC, working with a coalition of organizations working on low-carbon urbanization in China that includes the Environmental Defense Fund, the Energy Foundation, the Institute for Sustainable Communities and the World Resources Institute, will be releasing a bilingual report next week that highlights the challenges and progress of China’s low carbon urbanization. The report highlights Chinese examples of low carbon urbanization in terms of land use, transportation and energy. Examples include the world’s largest bike-sharing program in Hangzhou (correction: Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, has an even larger bike-sharing program with 90,000 bicycles), and building energy retrofit programs for northern Chinese cities. Another low-carbon development example is vertical land development in Changsha, where pedestrian walkways and bikeways were constructed aboveground, automobiles travel on ground level, and parking lots were constructed underground. The report concludes with recommendations for stronger low-carbon urban development strategies that all levels of the Chinese government can enact.   

Each of these efforts are poised for greater action in the coming months as China begins to formulate its next set of domestic and international climate actions. As the country grapples with its daunting air pollution challenge and building more liveable cities, there are emerging signs that the country is finally prepared to address its over-reliance on coal and to ensure that its citizens live in healthy, sustainable cities.

We know that the Chinese leadership will rise to this challenge.

About the Authors

Alvin Lin

Climate and Energy Policy Director, China program

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