Climate takes center stage in Paris
China prepares to help lead the way to a low-carbon future as leaders gather for UN environmental summit, Fu Jing and Lan Lan report.
Paris, reeling from recent terror attacks, is set to be the scene of another event of worldwide note as the United Nations climate change summit is scheduled from Nov 30 to Dec 11.
More than 138 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, have confirmed their attendance at the event, which will focus on how the world can reduce carbon emissions to battle climate change.
China watchers say that, in Paris, Xi is expected to go beyond the detailed carbonreduction targets already promised by China.
He is expected to focus on China’s proactive role in meeting global challenges and increasing its say in global governance, and will talk about the transformation of China’s development pattern and the evolution of its thinking on ecological civilization.
In its pledge to the United Nations in the summer, China said it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 65 percent per GDP unit by 2030 from the levels in 2005. The country also said it would peak emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030 or before.
China will ensure the fulfillment of its pledges for cutting emissions regardless of the outcome of the Paris climate summit, according to Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change issues.
Any agreement reached in Paris will be judged on whether it is “equitable, effective and win-win”, according to Zou Ji, a professor at the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, a Beijing-based think tank.
“But for China, transitioning to a low-carbon economy and reaching its goals is a must — there is no Plan B,” Zou said.
Officials say they will make efforts toward an earlier peak by improving energy efficiency and adjusting China’s energy structure.
China already has dwarfed all other countries in terms of clean energy installations. It accounts for 25 percent of the world’s total installed capacity of renewable energy in the past five years and its rapid development of wind and solar has greatly reduced costs.
Goals submitted to the UN also include boosting the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix to 20 percent by 2030. “Such a size and pace for renewable energy growth is unprecedented globally,” said He Jiankun, director of the Institute of Low Carbon Economy at Tsinghua University.
China’s renewable energy target for 2030 would be equivalent to installing 10 1-million-kilowatt nuclear power units annually or 10 5-megawatt wind turbines each day between 2020 and 2030, He said.
“China faces a tougher challenge than the developed countries to achieve the series of targets because it is in a different stage of development,” He said.
Most developed countries maintained an economic growth rate of between 2 and 3 percent when their emissions peaked. The US, for example, reached its carbon emissions peak in 2005.
Since China is expected to maintain a growth rate of 4 to 5 percent near 2030, it will have to keep its carbon emissions per unit of GDP lower than what the developed countries did to reach their peak.
If China can escape the old model of polluting first and then cleaning later, and decouple economic growth from environmental impact, it will provide a model for other developing countries, said He.
The year 2014 saw the first decline in China’s coal output after 15 years of consecutive growth. Industries such as cement, power, steel and chemicals are facing overcapacity and more stringent environmental standards.
Things are changing as the economy entered the “new normal”, which means slower but more sustainable growth. China reported a 5.7 percent year on year decline in coal consumption in the first nine months of this year, after a 2.9 percent decline in 2014.
Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said coal production and coal imports in China peaked in 2013 and the rate of decline in both production and imports accelerated throughout 2014 and 2015.
Chinese leaders have stressed that cutting emissions “is not at others’ request but on our own initiative” and the promotion of clean energy and energy efficiency has been highlighted in the proposals for the 13th FiveYear Plan (2016-20).
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said it is a “fascinating moment in history” that has seen China incorporate eco-civilization into its future development path.
The country’s cumulative investment in promoting non-fossil fuels and developing low-carbon technologies is likely to exceed 40 trillion yuan ($6.2 trillion) between 2015 and 2030, estimates the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, a leading think tank.
It is expected to create new opportunities in ecological restoration and renewable energy technology, both for domestic and international companies.
Janos Pasztor, United Nations’ assistant secretarygeneral on climate change, said emphasis on the concept of an ecological civilization reflects a shift in the development policies of China.
“And it is of particular significance for the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and global efforts to address climate change,” said Pasztor.
“This shift is essential because taking timely and universal action on climate change is the way the world can achieve sustainable development goals to end poverty, (and) build stronger economies and safer, healthier societies everywhere.”
China’s recent development pathway will help it tackle increasing pressure from resource consumption and environmental degradation, he said.
Samantha Smith, leader of the World Wildlife Fund Global Climate and Energy Initiative, said although there are some economic challenges, China’s determination to achieve a green and low-carbon transition remains strong.
She said the economic growth rate of the world’s largest developing country is lower, but it is still quite high among all major countries.
“At the same time, energy and carbon intensity dropped significantly and the increase of renewables in China’s primary energy mix is quite remarkable,” Smith said.
One of every four kilowatt hours of electricity in China comes from low carbon sources, mostly renewables. “According to these numbers, China is fully expected to over-deliver its targets in the 12th Five-Year plan and is right on track for its pre-2020 pledge,” she said.
“This is a very encouraging sign that a low carbon transition won’t compromise but rather strengthens social and economic progress.”
WWF strongly supports the Chinese government’s ecological civilization strategy, which is in line with the organization’s global mission to ensure a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for people and the planet, Smith said.
The WWF believes that the recently adopted UN sustainable development goals and their targets provide a strategic framework for building an ecological civilization, and the 13th Five Year Plan would be an opportunity to demonstrate the implementation of the goals, she said.
Together with evolution of thinking at top levels, Pasztor said the public awareness in China about the need to address environmental degradation, pollution and climate change has significantly increased over the past two decades.
“The public is more engaged on these issues than ever before. People understand that protecting the environment has direct benefits for health and quality of life. This growing public concern has led the government to take more ambitious policies and measures,” said Pasztor.
The Chinese public is aware of China’s environmental crisis, according to Isabel Hilton, a London-based journalist and founder of China Dialogue, an independent, nonprofit organization that focuses on the environment.
According to the latest Pew Global Opinion Survey, however, public understanding of climate change and low-carbon development is still relatively low in China, and climate change is often confused with air pollution, she noted.
But according to a report previously released by Oxfam and Renmin University of China, the climate awareness of Chinese is even higher than that of Americans.
Smith of the WWF said, in recent years, momentum has been driven by widespread public concerns over air quality, local air pollution and global climate change.
They are issues with the same origin, which is China’s reliance on coal-fired power generation. Climate change also makes tiny, dangerous PM 2.5 particulate pollution even more difficult to diffuse in some regions in China and affects the air quality in neighboring countries.
“To solve environmental problems, including climate change, we need public support,” said Smith. “And we believe that by uniting people, we can change climate change and move to a low-carbon future.”
Gao Shuang contributed to this story.
Contact the writers at fujing@ chinadaily.com.cn and firstname.lastname@example.org
Blades are ready to be installed on wind turbines at a power plant in Hami prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Solar power is used to boil water in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region.