Will China Save the Planet?

As climate studies grow more urgent and the Trump administration continues to undermine climate action, all eyes are on the world’s biggest country—and currently its biggest polluter—to model the way forward.

A wind farm in Lichuan, in China’s Hubei province

Liu Jiao/Associated Press

Try as it might, the White House has failed to suppress the impact of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration on the day after Thanksgiving. The report, which synthesizes the findings of more than a dozen federal agencies and was crafted with input from approximately 300 scientists, is unequivocal in its declaration that the planet is warming, that human activity is the cause, and that immediate action must be taken on a globally significant scale to reverse the warming trend—and the climate change that results from it—by curbing our emissions.

As a U.S.–based environmental advocate whose focus is on China, I’m in a unique position to compare and contrast the trajectories of both countries—the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon—as they grapple with the enormous threat of climate change and take steps to combat it. In my new book, Will China Save The Planet?, I explore one key difference in how the governments of the two nations are addressing the issue. While the United States under President Trump has shamefully stalled on the very real climate progress that was made during the Obama administration, China has owned up to its oversize role in putting greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere. Accordingly, it has committed itself to play an oversize role in slowing the CO2 juggernaut and establishing the groundwork for a 21st-century clean-energy economy.

China, in other words, understands that it has the potential to fill the leadership vacuum created by the United States’ deplorable abdication on climate and to move the needle on curbing greenhouse gases and promoting clean energy—but only if it follows through on its ambitious set of promises and keeps assiduously ramping up its efforts.

There’s no question that China has contributed mightily to our global carbon footprint, though its per capita emissions are still less than half those of the United States. Over one-quarter of all the world’s carbon emissions come from China, a country that consumes as much coal as all other countries combined. This means that China’s coal consumption is the largest single source of CO2 emissions on the planet, producing on its own more than 7 billion tons per year. These emissions—and the massive, deadly air pollution that comes with them—were long seen by China’s leaders as necessary by-products of the industrialization and development that helped turn the nation into an economic powerhouse during the second half of the 20th century. And as one century led into the next, there was little reason to suspect that the world’s most populous nation would suddenly commit to changing its ways.

Yet that’s exactly what has happened. Beginning in 2013—when air quality in Beijing reached such deplorably low levels that the term airpocalypse was coined to describe the conditions there—an interrelated set of state-instituted policies, plans, technologies, standards, and market mechanisms began yielding fruit in the form of a reduced dependence on coal and a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions. That year, coal use leveled off for the first time, and it actually fell over each of the next three years as the government canceled more than a hundred coal-fired projects that were in the works while simultaneously setting new regional targets to reduce coal consumption by 140 million tons by 2020. The impact of such actions can’t be overstated: This “dip” in China’s coal use is cited as one reason that global CO2 emissions remained essentially flat between 2014 and 2016, even as the global economy grew.

Workers carry sifted coal at the Wuda coal field near Inner Mongolia, in northern China

Mike Goldwater/Alamy

Meanwhile, as it has worked to curtail its coal consumption, China has invested massively in renewable energy, and it currently sits atop the global leaderboard in solar and wind installed capacity. Last year, China added more solar photovoltaic capacity than did the rest of the world’s nations combined; if it meets its 2020 targets, it will by then have installed five times the solar capacity than the United States could boast in 2017. Another way of looking at the difference between China’s approach and our own country’s: For every dollar that the United States invested in renewable energy last year, China invested three. Last year it spent $126 billion. By 2020, it will have spent another $360 billion. And by 2030—just a dozen years from now—it will have spent fully $6 trillion on solar, wind, and other forms of clean energy.

That’s the same year, by the way, that some China watchers are predicting the country will have phased out internal combustion engines in its newly produced vehicles, or at least be well on its way to doing so. Though the government hasn’t set a precise date for a phase-out, it has expressed the will to move to an all-electric fleet—and with 2030 already on the calendar as the date by which China intends to peak its carbon emissions, that year seems a likely candidate. Regardless, the speed and vigor with which the country is investing in electric vehicles is staggering, and highly suggestive of an impending paradigm shift, one with global implications. China recently overtook the United States as the world’s largest market for electric vehicles, accounting for nearly half of the global total in 2017. It’s currently home to 40 percent of the world’s electric cars and 99 percent of all electric buses. More than a million electric cars are on Chinese roads today, almost double the number in the United States; the government aims to have five million on the road by 2020.

All of these trends augur well for China’s multifaceted goal of slashing its carbon footprint, reducing its air pollution, and opening up (and dominating) new markets. And because these efforts will be undertaken on such a large scale, the entire world will reap a measurable climate dividend from China’s wave of investments over the next few decades.

But as I point out in my book, that same scale—the one that so amplifies all of China’s triumphs—also poses the biggest obstacle to its success. Because China is so big, it has a much longer road ahead of it than many countries do if it wants to reach its goals. A literal representation of this long road ahead comes in the form of China’s $4 trillion to $8 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, an almost unfathomably large plan to physically connect the nation to markets in 70 countries around the world. How the country proceeds with the biggest (and, from an environmental standpoint, the riskiest) infrastructure project in history will be clear a sign of how deep its climate commitment actually runs.

Tell lawmakers to act now to avoid climate catastrophe

There will be other obstacles to overcome along the way, among them the stubbornly lingering attractiveness of coal as an energy source. After three straight years of reduction in coal use beginning in 2014, coal consumption in China began to rise again—slightly—in 2017. And the country’s vision of a future powered by clean energy will require national reforms that are even more daunting than the Belt and Road Initiative, as China works to integrate wind and solar power into an electricity system and an economy that were both built on coal. But if I’ve learned anything in my decades spent studying China’s environmental journey, it’s to not underestimate how fast China can change when it wants to.

I don’t mean to imply by the title of my book that China bears sole responsibility for saving the world from climate catastrophe. As the United Nations stressed in a new Emissions Gap report released yesterday, “Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required by all nations. The assessment of actions by the G20 countries indicates that this is yet to happen; in fact, global CO2 emissions increased in 2017 after three years of stagnation.”

There is also plenty of room for countries to collaborate and even engage in healthy competition in the battle against climate change. States, provinces, cities, businesses, investors, and individuals all have crucial roles to play. But right now, China’s clean energy leadership—and the way its massive investments are causing renewable energy prices to plummet worldwide, transforming our global energy system—is cause for hope. The rest of the world should keep its fingers crossed . . . and its eyes wide open.

About the Authors

Barbara Finamore

Senior Strategic Director, Asia

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