How is China Doing on Climate Change?

(Image: NASA Worldwind, Flickr)

Discussions on climate change at the foot of popular media websites seem to take a curious turn whenever China is mentioned, usually in the form of repeated accusations that the country is continuing to develop new coal plants and isn’t making much of an effort at resolving its emissions and urban pollution issues. While this may have been valid five or six years ago, increasingly, the critics couldn’t be more wrong.

The first thing to realise is that China is, itself, facing numerous adverse impacts, both within the environment, as a direct result of climate change, and also on health, as a result of urban pollution. The Chinese government isn’t sitting idle on this, it has noticed and is starting to take firm action.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Annual Assessment Report (AR5), these impacts include increasing mean annual temperatures, reductions in rainfall resulting in a general decrease in soil moisture which in turn will affect crop growth and the introduction of water stress issues; reductions in annual water runoff carried by rivers in some areas with increases in other areas such as northern China; heat stress impacts on crops such as rice and maize, increased flooding in coastal cities such as Shanghai; increased prevalence of diseases such as dengue fever and schistosomiasis and a reduction in permafrost on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with consequent substantial impacts on infrastructure and soil erosion.. Other impacts may include increasingly severe dust storms (which are also occurring more frequently), more severe snowstorms and overflow from melting glaciers.

China’s rapidly growing population and economic success will undoubtedly exacerbate these issues, although in recent years the Chinese economy has begun to slow somewhat, in turn reducing the country’s need to burn coal. However, the atmospheric pollution created by Chinese coal-burning power plants has reached a critical level, with smog in Beijing reaching a level 40 times the limit considered safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2013.


Pollution in a Chinese city (Image: John Duffy, Flickr)

So what is China doing to try and turn this around?

The foundation for action on both climate change and urban pollution in China is a particular strategy consisting of three distinct stages, in essence a form of roadmap that forms the basis for policy. These can be summarised as acknowledgment (and there is certainly a great deal of that currently), the ‘three P’s’ (patience, perseverance and peer-reviewed science) and large-scale implementation.

These stages are in turn reflected in a range of national policies, particularly China’s Five Year Plan. Within this, there are a number of key priorities, such as the need to reduce the energy intensity of the Chinese economy, carbon emissions reduction and the expansion of forested areas. The overall programme is also supported by an international advisory body, the China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development.

The Three P’s are, in essence, guiding principles. Patience is required because the processes needed to address climate issues will take time before they start to take effect. Perseverance is key when investigating particular policy options, such as trying to determine which species of tree are the most climate-resilient. Underlying these two is rigorous peer-reviewed research.

Large-scale implementation is driven because of the sheer size of the country and the scale of the problem. One approach falling within this implementation stage is eco-system wide resilience something that has been adopted widely by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and which China has now embraced.

Much of the action taken by the Chinese government thus far has been driven by the Chinese population’s increasing clamour over urban pollution. Chinese citizens have long had many reasons to be concerned, particularly with regard to the number of cancer patients in Chinese hospitals. According to the World Health Organisation, diseases of the lung, stomach, liver and oesophagus have reached 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent and 50 percent of the global total, respectively. The main cause is most likely to be deteriorating air and water pollution.

Chinese citizens have begun to emigrate in increasingly large numbers because of the problem, or are strongly considering doing so. That in turn is likely to have an effect on the Chinese economy and its success in science and technology, as more and more experts vote with their feet. The threat has been described by the 2013 Hurun Report as “the third immigration exodus in China’s modern history”, pointing to the fact that most of the immigrants have been members of the upper classes and the professional elite.

The first thing the government did to try and resolve the problem was to deploy new pollution data collection technology. One such example is the ‘Nationwide Air Quality’ smartphone app developed by Wuhan Juzheng Environmental Science & Technology Co in late 2013.


A smartphone air quality app simulation (Image: Intel Free Press, Flickr)

Having assessed the problem, and fully aware of its extent, the government is now starting to crack down on the most inefficient state industries, a process increasingly driven by calls for such measures by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Chinese polluters will be in for a pretty rough ride in 2016, with the introduction, on January 1st this year, of new laws to curb urban pollution and a revised Environmental Protection Law. The government has also introduced a ban on the opening of new coal mines for the next three years and a new coal action plan, taking effect from 2020, will bring to an end the burning of coal in urban areas. According to Yang Fuqiang, a senior advisor at Beijing’s National Resources Defense Council, coal consumption will fall by an estimated 2.5-3 percent over the course of 2016.

The industries next in line on the government’s pollution hit-list are likely to be steel and cement, with the most inefficient plants closed down first. The cement industry is also likely to be affected by the government’s check on massive construction projects and heightened efficiency requirements will follow as a result of the tighter pollution caps expected in the Five-Year Plan in March.

Chinese citizens themselves are increasingly taking action. In recent years a variety of smartphone apps and monitors have been available on the electronics market specifically aimed at recording pollution levels in local areas. One of these, called the Blue Map, was developed by China’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs and supported by the SEE Foundation and the Ali Baba Foundation. It can collect pollution data from China’s 3,000 coal, steel, cement and petrochemical plants allowing people to push for punitive measures against polluters, thereby helping to clean the air and reduce carbon emissions. The Chinese government can then implement a range of penalties against the worst polluters, including fines, possible imprisonment and closure of plants.

Another device, called Laser Egg, developed by Origins Technology, is a hand-held pollution monitor which can be used by Chinese citizens to pollution levels both outdoor and indoor.

These are just two of many apps and devices starting to appear in China that is increasingly democratising pollution information, making it available to ordinary citizens rather than restricting it to just the Chinese government.

The Paris agreement was a major step forward for China, and indeed many other nations around the world as well. This doesn’t mean to say the agreement was a perfect start to serious global attempts to curb climate change, given the various criticism including the fact that it won’t take effect until 2020. Nevertheless, according to Beijing’s senior climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, speaking to Tech Times in December, the agreement should already “provide plenty of impetus” for China’s low-carbon plan and domestic sustainable development.

Tangshanpeng wind farm

Tangshanpeng wind farm, China (Image: Land Rover Our Planet, Flickr)

Alongside the threat to close more coal plants in 2016 and crack down on pollution, China is rapidly deploying renewable energy technologies, something that is likely to increase in the wake of the Paris agreement.

According to a US government report, China invested $90 billion in clean energy, compared to $52 billion in the US, over the course of 2014. During the Paris conference, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres revealed that China had upped its game and had subsequently moved into a ‘leadership position’ with regard to global clean energy development. This in turn means that, far from being on top of the deck, the US is now engaged in a game of ‘catch-up’ with China with regard to renewables.

This is great news, and it deserves to be acknowledged. So, if anyone now criticises China as being retrograde in its clean energy programme, you might suggest they update their information somewhat. The race towards global clean energy deployment is well and truly on and China is sprinting ahead.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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