Home United States USA — Cinema China’s Role in Climate Change, and Possibly in Fighting It

China’s Role in Climate Change, and Possibly in Fighting It


China, the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, has said it is serious about cutting emissions. Is China living up to its word, and what more could it do?
BEIJING — When President Trump announced that he would take the United States out of the Paris climate accord, a treaty to limit global warming, he threw an accusing spotlight on China, the planet’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and industry.
Under that treaty, “China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years – 13, ” and “be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants, ” Mr. Trump said.
But China has said it is serious about cutting greenhouse gases. Is China living up to its word, and what more could it do if it wanted to become a global leader in fighting climate change? Here’s an explanation.
How did China come to be the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter?
China stands head and shoulders above other countries in greenhouse gas output. Starting in the 1990s, its emissions leapt, and by 2007 it had overtaken the United States as the world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluter. The United States had been the biggest emitter for over a century.
In 2015, China released almost 10.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry, equal to 29 percent of total emissions worldwide, according to the Global Carbon Budget, a research consortium. The United States emitted 5.4 billion tons in 2015.
China’s daunting pollution in part reflects its population — 1.37 billion people, more than any other country. As Chinese people have become richer, buying cars, bigger homes, refrigerators and air-conditioners, their emissions have risen, although their emission per capita remains much lower than Americans’ .
But more than sheer population lies behind China’s rising emissions. Although China is still relatively poor, its average emissions per person have already passed the European Union average.
Another cause is China’s galloping industrial growth, fueled by coal. China’s economic takeoff has been propelled by high-polluting factories, steel mills, cement and power plants.
“The Chinese emissions story is really a coal story, ” Glen Peters, a senior researcher at Cicero, a climate and environmental research institute in Oslo, wrote recently.
China has been trying to shift away from these smokestack industries and to cleaner energy, and coal demand has cooled since 2012. But coal still provides about two-thirds of China’s total energy needs.
What did China pledge to do under the Paris accord?
China has long argued that as a poorer country, it shouldn’ t shoulder the same strict caps on its greenhouse gas pollution that rich countries should accept. Instead, China has argued that developing countries should be allowed to let their emissions rise while their citizens grow out of poverty.
The pledges that China made as part of the Paris agreement reflected that idea. Instead of agreeing to a firm ceiling on emissions, China pledged that it would cut carbon intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide pollution released to create each dollar of economic activity. That means China’s emissions can keep growing as the economy expands, but at a slower rate than the growth in gross domestic product.
In the Paris agreement, China said it would cut its carbon intensity by 60 to 65 percent by 2030, compared to its level in 2005.
China also pledged that its carbon dioxide emissions would reach their maximum by around 2030, and that it would try to reach an earlier peak. It aims to achieve that partly by expanding solar, wind, nuclear and other nonfossil energy to about 20 percent of total energy use.
Is China serious about cutting its greenhouse gas pollution?
China’s carbon dioxide pollution output has already slowed more than the government promised in the Paris agreement, and that trend seems likely to continue, many experts say. China’s emissions are likely to peak years before the 2030 date that the government pledged as part of the Paris agreement.
“China is very close to making the turn in its carbon dioxide emissions. It will very likely be before 2030 and — in the very best case — may already have happened, ” said Niklas Höhne, a founding partner at the NewClimate Institute.
International pressure may have played a part in curbing China’s emissions, but the main reasons have been domestic: an economy less dependent on heavy industry and coal, and public discontent over air pollution. That widespread anger has reinforced Chinese leaders’ efforts to cut smokestack industries, and those cuts are also good for limiting greenhouse gases.
“The real drivers for clean energy in China are much closer to home than Paris, ” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese energy policy for Greenpeace. “The air pollution and the need to reinvent the economy are much bigger drivers.”
Could China do more to cut emissions?
China could have signed onto bolder emissions pledges in the Paris agreement, and many environmental advocates and scientists hope that it will offer more ambitious goals in future talks.
But the Chinese government tends to make conservative commitments in international agreements, and the Paris treaty was designed so governments could offer modest initial goals that became more ambitious, said Mr. Peters, the researcher at Cicero.
“Since countries don’ t want to fail, it is natural that the emission pledges will be conservative, ” Mr. Peters said by email. “But, this is partly the point of the Paris agreement and the bottom-up pledges. They are designed to start weak with ambition increased over time.”
How quickly and deeply China drives down greenhouse gas emissions could be politically contentious.
While some Chinese officials want audacious steps to cut coal and encourage green growth, others worry that going too fast would put too many mining and industrial workers out of a job, and soak up government revenue better spent elsewhere, several experts said.
“The fundamental uncertainty is whether and how fast China can be in terms of transforming its economy from an energy-intensive, investment-intensive economy, ” said Ranping Song, an expert on Chinese energy policy at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “Old habits are really hard to kick.”
Mr. Trump’s announcement that he wants to leave the Paris accord won’ t prompt the Chinese government to retreat from its pledges, but it could embolden local officials and energy companies resistant to faster cuts, said Zou Ji, a professor of environmental policy at Renmin University in Beijing.

Continue reading...