What the world is getting wrong about China and climate change

Pressing ahead too fast with emissions cuts will cause pain down the line for China, says senior climate strategist Zou Ji

Zou Ji is deputy director of China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy

chinadialogue: How has China’s role in the global response to climate change evolved over the past decade?

Zou Ji: I divide it into three stages. First, from 1989 to 1995, China learned about climate change and started to participate in international discussions. It mainly went along with the global process.

Then, from 1995, when substantive climate negotiations started, to the Bali roadmap in 2007, China shifted from adjustment and familiarisation to active participation in response to calls from other countries. During the negotiations over the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Chinese media commonly rejected the demands and requests of the international community, and that made a deep impression on other nations.

Since 2007, China has become more active, entering a stage of full and positive participation.

Driving this last stage has been the global trend towards low-carbon development and, more importantly, a change in domestic circumstances. During the 10th and 11th Five-Year Plans, China’s economy grew exponentially, bringing alarming increases in energy consumption, spending on power plants and emissions. Ten years ago, China had less than 500 gigawatts of generating capacity – now it has over 1,000 gigawatts. In six or seven years, more capacity was added than in the 50 years after 1949.

Those figures are enough to rattle any economist or China expert. Coal is China’s primary source of energy, and those hundreds of gigawatts of power rely on the burning of coal. Huge numbers of people are at work in coal mines, both large and small, and about half of rail freight capacity is used to move coal. That’s quite something. In the early 1990s, China was an oil exporter. Today, we depend on imports for almost 60% of our consumption. This is unimaginable, in terms of oil price, economic cost and energy security. We have hit the limit of this type of growth.

So China has started to rethink things. The decades leading up to 2050 are crucial for China’s shift from a middle-income developing country to a middle-income developed country, and we can’t yet be sure we’ll hit that goal. What we can be sure of is this: if we carry on with our current model of development, there’s little chance of success.

To sum up, China’s role has shifted from being asked to act, to acting of its own accord. That was determined by the prospects, the basic interests, of China’s billion-plus population. And China has affirmed that approach through its national strategy – everyone has seen the action taken to close down obsolete production and adjust economic structure.

cd: Cutting emissions isn’t easy for an industrialising and urbanising economy. Is the rest of the world asking too much? Forget for a moment the political tussles over how much CO2 can and should be cut – what’s China’s actual ability to reduce emissions?

ZJ: China does have some advantages, such as the opportunity for adjustments in the world economy due to the financial crisis. Also, China has become the world’s second largest economy and the gap with the US is shrinking. Spending on institutional measures and research and development that in the past would have been unthinkable is becoming feasible.

Although the world is still led by the developed nations, the status and negotiating strength of the developing world is also on the increase.

But at the same time, China suffers from some obvious disadvantages.

The international community has some misconceptions, such as believing China is now a developed nation. This could mean China ends up taking on more global responsibility than its capabilities allow. We’ve held the Olympics and sent astronauts into space, but you can’t look at the richest parts of Beijing and Shanghai and assume the whole country is like that. The welfare of hundreds of millions of rural residents isn’t yet assured. Healthcare, unemployment benefits, pensions, all of these are weak. Many Chinese people have no safe drinking water, and our per-capita GDP ranks ninety-something globally. Overall, China is still a developing nation.

Another important disadvantage is the make-up of our natural resources.

Brazil gets 90% of its energy from hydropower. It is fortunate enough to have those resources. If China could replace coal with oil as a primary source of energy, emissions would drop by one third. If we could replace coal with natural gas, they would drop by two thirds. But China’s main resource is coal. We only have limited amounts of other sources of energy, and obviously a reliance on imports is unrealistic. Moving to clean energy is a massive challenge.

Meanwhile, we still need to urbanise and educate hundreds of millions of rural residents. Quality of life needs to be improved. There can be no disagreement about that.

Domestically, there are two dangerous trends we need to steer clear of. One is sticking too rigidly to our traditional way of doing things. The other is changing too quickly, trying to create a low-carbon economy in a Great Leap Forward manner and misjudging China’s circumstances and technological ability.

China can only do its best as it is able. Moving too quickly will actually hold back low-carbon development.

cd: Will China take a different path to that of the
Kuznets curve (the idea that certain environmental indicators start to improve once development has reached a certain stage)?

ZJ: In the current world economic system, it is difficult for a developing nation to cut emissions. China currently accounts for 70% of new emissions each year, and the pressure and expectations it faces are increasing. But China is still on the left-hand side of the Kuznets curve, while the EU is on the right-hand side, beyond the peak. The type of emissions of the two different stages aren’t the same, they can’t be compared. China’s high emissions come mainly from industry and are driven by investment. The EU’s emissions come mostly from building and transportation, and are due to consumption.

At their peak, France’s per-capita emissions were 9 tonnes, while Germany’s approached 15 tonnes. We shouldn’t forget that. You can’t ask China to get to 7 tonnes and level off or fall. It goes against the basic laws of developmental economics. Japan and Australia have per-capita GDPs of US$40,000, but their emissions still haven’t peaked. China’s per-capita GDP is US$5-6,000. The curve is still going up.

China can peak at a lower level than the US and EU did historically. But even a per-capita peak of 10 tonnes means total emissions of 13 billion tonnes. That’s more than I can imagine. It’s a huge challenge for China.

cd: Historically, EU countries cut emissions by exporting production. We can’t do that this time, so where can China cut emissions?

ZJ: Through technological advances. Energy efficiency will be the key battlefield.

China’s population will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. But even if that growth is very small, the imports and exports, investment and consumption that per-capita GDP depends on must continue to rise. Currently, that growth is mostly driven by investment, but consumption would similarly increase emissions and energy use, through transport and buildings.

For decades, China has sought to adjust its economic structure in favour of the service sector. But if that means increased use of transportation and freight, emissions will still grow. The service sector as a whole has low emissions, but that kind of industrial structure needs a certain GDP level. It’s not just a numbers game.

In manufacturing, there is a clear distinction between low-end operations – with high emissions and low profits – and high-end operations, with low emissions and high profits. Again, we see the importance of technology.

Increased manufacturing and urbanisation will continue for the foreseeable future. What would be the easiest way to cut emissions? To send everyone to the fields overnight. But that’s not possible, that would just increase poverty. Some expectations are over-simplistic. China still needs to supply safe drinking water for hundreds of millions of rural residents and ensure houses don’t collapse in medium-strength earthquakes. More concrete and steel means more energy consumption – that’s the basic situation.

And energy-hungry EU and US lifestyles have had a huge impact. They have a sense of superiority and leadership, and their culture informs the youth of developing nations – the consumers, managers, chairmen and professors of the future. Every day they see adverts for cars, big houses, SUVs, for high consumption, and they think that’s what success is. 

If we’re going to change things, then the world needs to act together and change our ways of life.