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European Voices on China
MERICS Blog

Can China save the planet from climate change?

24 January 2017

By Sebastian Heilmann and Jost Wübbeke

In the absence of U.S. and European leadership, China is emerging as the world’s best hope in the fight for climate change. Despite tremendous near-term challenges, Beijing’s political commitment and forward-looking policies could turn China into a model for building an alternative energy economy.

Can Beijing beat the smog? Tourists visit Tian'anmen Square in heavy smog in Beijing, January 1, 2017. Image by Imaginechina

As images of apocalyptic smog in Beijing travelled around the world earlier this year, it would seem like a grotesque idea to envision a leading role for China in shaping global climate and energy policy in the near future. Yet China does have the potential to surpass the U.S. and the EU in energy, propulsion and environmental technologies in the medium to long term – and to become a model for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The fact that China takes the long view in its industrial and technology policy can turn out to be a decisive advantage over countries whose climate strategies are headed for a complete revision (U.S.) or paralysis (Europe).

Societies and governments around the world face the same economic dilemma as they struggle to reach the global climate goals agreed in Paris in 2015: they have to implement measures that don’t yield immediate positive effects at the expense of and in opposition to existing industrial and energy structures. But while the costs of climate change and environmental degradation manifest themselves only gradually and are unevenly distributed, the decline of existing industries and the resulting job losses can lead to immediate political destabilization.

U.S. disengagement and European paralysis

The new U.S. administration under Donald Trump aims at a national reindustrialization in connection with promoting fossil energies and revising the Obama administration’s climate policies. The EU lost its former leading role in combating climate change due to its current economic difficulties and political paralysis. China on the other hand has picked climate policy as a way to prove itself as a “responsible major power.” Having accepted binding limits on its future CO2 emissions for the first time in Paris, China used the climate conference in Marrakech in 2016 to announce its future active role on global climate issues.

Beijing still has a far way to go before being able to claim global leadership in this field. So far, it has not quelled doubts about the reliability of its own coal statistics and emission data. The Chinese leadership rejects external monitoring of the implementation of its climate and environmental goals.

But in contrast to the new U.S. administration, Beijing accepts scientific evidence of human-induced climate change, and China’s political leadership takes warnings from scientists like Beijing University’s Shuai Chen very seriously. The researcher predicted that climate change could reduce China’s corn and soy production by up to 19 percent by 2100. Such a sharp decline would have dramatic consequences for the food security of China’s large population.

Beijing has committed to building a new energy and environmental economy. In 2013, the government launched seven regional pilot programs for emission trading. China boasts by far the world’s largest number of installed wind power capacity. In 2015, China surpassed Germany as the world leader in photovoltaic installations.

China combines climate policy with strategic interests

China’s leadership combines its climate policy goals with national strategic, economic and technological interests. Five million electric cars are scheduled to drive on China’s roads by 2020. Car producers will likely have to meet quotas for e-mobility starting in 2018. Apart from improving the air quality in Chinese cities, introducing these regulations gives China a unique opportunity to break the lock of foreign carmakers on the Chinese market.

China will struggle with the goal to reduce its coal consumption. It fell between 2014 and 2015 as the economy underwent a structural shift from manufacturing to services. Yet emissions from coal-fired power plants have surged again in the recent past as the government increased its subsidies for heavy and coal industries to prop up growth and employment. The dramatic increase in smog in Northern China in the winter of 2016 was mainly a result of this policy shift.

China’s plan to turn away from the Maoist “war against nature” is an enormously difficult undertaking. But even if China’s leaders have not yet shaken their old ways, they are more forward thinking than the Trump administration. In abandoning traditional energy sources, China follows the strategy of a “second track” – similar to its transition from a socialist to a market-based economy. After 1979, China’s leaders promoted new economic structures with high growth potential. At the same time, they cautiously reformed existing structures, which gradually lost importance over the course of the transition. If China remains politically stable, the same strategy could help it “outgrow” its fossil fuel economy.

China needs time, but can be a game changer

The incremental success so far does not put China in a position of a global leader in the fight against climate change. A lot will depend on whether the Chinese leadership can stay on track. The broad diffusion of climate-friendly technologies in China will not be feasible in the absence of long-term planning and state subsidies, according to Kelly Sims Gallagher, Professor for Energy and Environmental Policy at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.

But at a time of U.S. disengagement and European paralysis, China remains the world’s best hope for pursuing a more effective global climate policy in the long term. If China succeeds in implementing the main parts of its own industrial, energy and environmental policies over the next ten years, it will overtake both the U.S. and Europe in building an alternative energy economy.

China’s rise to the top could be a game-changer. Once climate-friendly technologies are employed on a broad scale in China, their prices will drop and make them affordable and irresistible around the world. This is how successful policies in China could scale up to become a global success in the fight against climate change.

A German version of this article was first published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on January 15, 2017.

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The MERICS blog offers commentary and analysis on China’s political, economic and social development as well as its role in global affairs (and its relations with Europe).

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The  Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)is a Stiftung Mercatorinitiative. Established in 2013, MERICS is a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China.

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