China Commits to Cleaning Up

The planet's largest carbon emitter is taking steps to brighten its future—and the world's.

A waterfront solar panel array near The Bund in Shanghai, China

In the weeks before hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November 2014, Beijing went to great lengths to clean up its notoriously dirty air. Officials ordered factories and schools closed, shut down construction sites across the city, and issued a partial ban on driving—all in a desperate attempt to reduce air pollution by 40 percent before the arrival of leaders from more than 20 countries, including the United States.

That plan didn’t work as hoped, but something even better emerged from the meeting. In a major shift away from short-term, quick-fix solutions, China committed to a bold long-term plan to curb its dangerous pollution problem. On November 12, President Xi Jinping, in a joint agreement with President Obama, pledged to stop the growth of the country’s carbon pollution by around 2030. That’s huge, considering that China accounts for nearly 30 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

On the heels of that historic announcement, China made another groundbreaking move—one that will prove vital to meeting its 2030 target: It released its first national plan to limit coal use, the main source of carbon pollution and the nation’s largest contributor to global climate change. China, which currently uses nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined, pledged to cap its consumption at 4.2 billion tons by 2020—a direct reflection of the strategy that NRDC has promoted over the past few years as the organization’s work in China has expanded and borne fruit.

The plan debuted immediately after NRDC and partners convened a major coal-cap workshop in Beijing. The two-day event brought together more than 450 Chinese and international participants and highlighted initial research results on the topic, including an NRDC paper finding that coal consumption is responsible for up to 60 percent of the pollution behind China’s crippling smog.

Confronting its coal problem

“Putting a lid on coal is the single-most impor­tant step China can take to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions,” says Barbara Finamore, NRDC’s Asia director. She adds that an “ambitious yet achievable cap can help peak its emissions even earlier than the 2030 date announced.”

Indeed, China’s coal consumption is already drop­ping. Last year, it decreased for the first time in 14 years, and carbon emissions fell for the first time this century—a clear signal that the country is serious about cleaning up its act (and refuting criticisms that it plans to “do nothing” before 2030).

The health of the country, and the world, stands to benefit greatly from these commitments. Coal currently provides two-thirds of China’s energy and is responsible for more than half of its air pollution. That pollution causes more than a million premature deaths in the country every year—which accounts for about 40 percent of air-pollution mortality worldwide.

Meanwhile, a drastic cut in coal, and in carbon emissions more generally, significantly improves the chance of keeping global warming below the internationally accepted two-degree Celsius guideline, helping to stave off the gravest effects of climate change, including extreme weather and sea-level rise.

A focus on clean energy and energy efficiency

Last year’s monumental commitments aren’t all that China is doing to change its ways. Dur­ing his joint announcement with President Obama, President Xi also agreed to generate 20 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Solar power is already being added at a breakneck pace—after installing 10.6 solar gigawatts in 2014, China is well on its way toward meeting its goal of installing more than three times that by the end of 2015.

Efficiency is another important element of the overall energy efforts. As part of the joint agreement that took place in November, Presidents Xi and Obama expanded funding for the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (of which NRDC is a member) to support the development of building efficiency and other clean energy technologies. Cities like Shanghai are already blazing the trail. As part of an innovative pilot program that NRDC helped develop, customers voluntarily reduce electricity use upon request to help alleviate stress on power grids. The program has been so successful that it’s now serving as a model for other cities across China.

Cutting pollution at the source

China’s coal and carbon targets provide the necessary framework for reducing pollution, but tackling the problem at its source is also critical. Seven of the ten busiest shipping ports in the world are in this country, yet unlike at other ports, emissions here are largely unregulated. As David Pettit, director of NRDC’s Southern California Air program, notes, “Poor regulation at Chinese ports is allowing one container ship to pollute as much as 500,000 trucks in a single day.”

Ships passing through most of China’s ports are allowed to use the dirtiest diesel fuel, which contains dangerously high levels of sulfur, a huge threat to public health. Guided by successful cleanup efforts at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, where diesel emissions have dropped by 80 percent from a dozen years ago, NRDC is helping develop regulations and solutions for tackling the same problem at ports in China’s Pearl River Delta—an indispensable part of the country’s overall battle against dirty air, health problems, and, ultimately, climate change.

With these commitments, China is sending a strong signal to the rest of the planet that it is making changes to reduce carbon pollution—a very different, and much brighter, picture for negotiators to consider as the world prepares for the next round of global climate talks in Paris at the end of 2015.

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