China’s View of Climate Change

Policy Review, June & July 2010

–Article by Ying Ma

President barack obama has warned that the threat from climate change is serious, urgent, and growing. He has exhorted governments and citizens across the world to respond “boldly, swiftly, and together” or “risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.” Countless government officials, political leaders, climate scientists, and global warming activists agree with him. Standing in the way of these hopes and dreams, however, is China. It poses one of the biggest roadblocks to collective global action — even as it offers some of the most exciting solutions.

On the one hand, China significantly contributes to global warming by emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country, but it adamantly refuses to commit to any binding, international carbon emissions reduction targets. On the other hand, China is taking the threat of climate change ever more seriously at home: It is increasingly focused on cleaning up its heavy polluting industries, restoring its natural resources, promoting energy efficiency and conservation, and investing in renewable energy.

In the international debate on climate change, China appears to be both naked in self-interest and extravagantly cloaked in authoritarian chic. Many climate change worriers bitterly condemn China’s international position as inflexible, irresponsible, and obstructionist. Yet many also eagerly praise China’s aggressive push into green technology as bold and visionary. For instance, after the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom criticized China and a handful of other countries for having stood in the way of a global move “toward a greener future.” In contrast, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman frequently and breathlessly extols the “enlightened” leadership of Chinese autocrats who wish to remake “Red China” into “Green China,” “own” the clean technology market, and “impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

A closer look at China’s views and actions on climate change reveal that they are not as appalling as critics portray or as awe-inspiring as admirers believe. On this as on many other issues, China cares about protecting its economic development and promoting its economic competitiveness. It does not intend to cut the country’s impressive GDP growth figures to clean the earth or please international crowds. It does, however, believe that a warming climate could potentially inflict devastating damage on China and is taking concrete actions to address that threat. In addition, Beijing is dead serious about making money from the world’s new obsession with climate change and promoting Chinese leadership in — and ownership of — the global marketplace of green technology.

Ultimately, China’s self-interest may be quite naked, but it is not unreasonable. Its authoritarianism, on the other hand, is only chic to those prone to equate ruthlessness with efficiency, government planning with enlightenment.

China’s views

China’s views on climate change are fundamentally tied to the country’s pressing need for continued economic development. The People’s Republic may have regularly wowed the world with breathtaking, double-digit annual economic growth in the past three decades, but much of the country remains desperately poor. Beijing likes to remind the world that some 150 million Chinese citizens still live below the poverty line and China’s per capita GDP only recently exceeded $3,000. In 2009, a year in which China’s GDP officially grew by 8.7 percent, China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that the annual per capita net income for rural households amounted to less than 5,153 yuan (approximately $750), while the annual per capita disposable income of urban households was approximately 17,175 yuan (approximately $2,500). To the Chinese leadership, economic growth is the only way to raise living standards, bolster employment, and extract China from backwardness.

Unfortunately, China’s push for growth and modernization rubs up against rising global demands for collective action on climate change. In the world’s prevailing climate change narrative, human use of fossil fuels — such as coal, fuel oil, and natural gas — causes the release of heat-trapping greenhouse gases — mainly carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases — that ultimately contribute to global warming and its associated effects, including melting snow caps, rising sea levels, and extreme weather phenomena. In 2007, the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that greatly legitimized the prevailing global warming narrative and helped push climate change to the top of the political and policy agenda around the world. As global consciousness and obsession with climate change rose, China increasingly stood out as a key culprit. Notably, coal, the key “dirty” energy that contributes to global warming, ferociously fuels China’s raging economic development. China leads the world in coal production and consumption and relies on coal for approximately 70 percent of its energy. As a result, China emits an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, and in 2007, it overtook the United States as the largest carbon emitter of the world.

To make things worse, China’s massive economy, demands for energy consumption, and carbon emissions are only expected to grow. The Washington Post reports that the country’s electricity demand is likely to increase by 85 percent by 2020, according to the economic research institute of China’s State Grid Corporation, the largest electric power transmission and distribution company in China. The U.S. Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy estimates that to meet rising electricity demands, China will nearly double its coal-fired power capacity from 350 gigawatts (GW) in 2006 to 950 GW in 2030 and that China will account for 74 percent of the total increase in the world’s coal-related carbon dioxide emissions during that period. China’s burgeoning middle class will also demand ever more new comforts and products — ranging from cars to air conditioners — that will increase the country’s consumption of fossil fuels. Just in the area of automobiles, China surpassed the United States last year as the largest market in the world, and McKinsey & Company predicts in a report titled China’s Green Revolution that China will overtake the United States as the largest auto owner by 2025.

Not surprisingly, China faces ever louder calls worldwide for undertaking drastic and painful actions to clean up its environment and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. In response, China is fiercely defending its right to economic development. It never forgets to remind listeners that the industrialized world has a “historical responsibility” to take the lead in cutting emissions. Beijing frequently protests that its gargantuan carbon emissions figures do not tell the whole story. The United States, Beijing argues, remains the largest emitter in cumulative, historical terms. Greenpeace USA, for instance, puts America’s cumulative emissions between 1960 and 2005 at 2.4 times more than those of China during the same period. Other advanced economies, Beijing insists, must also share America’s burden. As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sternly pointed out last December in Copenhagen, developed countries have been responsible for 80 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions worldwide since the Industrial Revolution.

Furthermore, China likes to emphasize that its energy practices are more responsible — and its energy needs more fundamental — than those in the West. China has a much lower per capita emission of carbon dioxide than countries in the industrialized world: Each Chinese individual is responsible for less than half of the carbon emissions of his counterpart in Britain and only one-fifth as much of his counterpart in the United States. At the same time, much of China still lacks many of the basic comforts that contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions but are taken for granted in the developed world. Notably, half of China’s citizens still do not have access to winter heating. It would be unconscionable, Beijing argues, to deny its citizens the right to survival and a better life to accommodate wealthier nations’ climate wishes.

As such, China bristles at any international calls for it to commit to binding emissions reduction targets and views with sheer hostility any effort to “punish” its unwillingness to make such a commitment. When climate legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2009 with a provision allowing the U.S. government to impose a tariff on imports from countries that fail to meet U.S. greenhouse gas standards, China’s Ministry of Commerce condemned any enforcement of the controversial provision as a violation of the rules of the World Trade Organization. Xie Zhenhua, a vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top agency for economic planning and climate change policymaking, further made clear his country’s opposition by accusing U.S. congressional representatives of “using climate change as an excuse to practice protectionism on trade.” For now, no climate change legislation has passed the full U.S. Congress, but China’s opposition to “carbon tariffs” is unlikely to dent the growing urgency felt in the United States and other countries for China to make more meaningful commitments to fight climate change.

China’s views in action

Calls for China to take action reached a crescendo at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. There, China made clear what its views would look like when put in action on the global stage, and revealed, for those who did not already know, that China cared far more about its economy than it did for global handholding.

The Copenhagen summit was the latest round of international climate negotiations that sought to produce a global game plan for addressing climate change. All previous international climate agreements had placed the onus of battling climate change on developed countries. Notably, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which jumpstarted the climate change negotiations process in 1992, called on countries, especially industrialized countries, to stabilize their greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in 1997 and took effect in 2005, updated the UNFCC and set binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five percent against 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Kyoto did not, however, call for binding commitments from developing countries like China.

China did not wish for this to change, but others did. Enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol was hampered from the beginning. The United States formally refused to participate in the treaty in 2001 in part because it exempted large emitters in the developing world, like China and India, from binding emissions reduction targets. With the Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, many climate change believers had hoped that the un-sponsored negotiations in Copenhagen would produce a more effective successor treaty that would call for substantive and verifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across the world, including from large emitters in the developing world.

In Copenhagen, China made clear that it did not show up to acquiesce to others’ wishes. Chinese negotiators stuck to the position that confronting global warming came with “common but differentiated responsibilities,” a “core principle” agreed upon in previous international climate summits. In rhetoric, China called on advanced economies like the United States to commit to much steeper carbon emissions reduction targets than developing countries and to pony up funds to assist developing economies in adapting to climate change. In practice, China pledged to voluntarily reduce its carbon emissions to a level that developed countries considered inadequate, and made sure that no emissions reduction targets, binding or not, emerged in the text of the final Copenhagen Accord.

At the Copenhagen conference, fast-developing countries promised to limit emissions as a share of their growing economies, while wealthy nations pledged reductions from historic levels. China pledged to cut its carbon intensity, or the carbon dioxide output per unit of gross domestic product, by 40 percent to 45 percent from 2005 through 2020. The United States agreed to cut its emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, while the European Union agreed to cut emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Although Copenhagen was the first international forum in which China pledged, even if voluntarily, to meet a set of concrete numerical targets for curbing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, many remained unimpressed. Critics complained that a reduction in carbon intensity does not mean an actual reduction in carbon emissions. China’s total carbon emissions will inevitably increase as China’s GDP continues to grow, even though its carbon intensity decreases. In addition, they argue that China’s pledge requires no painful effort or serious sacrifice for the global common good, as it could be accomplished largely through China’s existing policies.

In addition, the developed world’s representatives at Copenhagen widely believe that the summit’s arduous negotiating process resulted in a mushy agreement largely because of China’s obstructionism. Industrialized countries wanted the final, nonbinding agreement to say that they would commit to 80 percent reductions in emissions by 2050. China vetoed it. They offered draft language noting that all countries would commit to 50 percent reductions in global emissions by 2050. China removed it. Earlier drafts of the agreement referred to it as a stepping stone to a legally binding treaty. China refused to allow it.

Lars-Erik Liljelund, special envoy to the Swedish prime minister on climate, tried to clarify: “China don’t like numbers,” he told reporters in Copenhagen. The United Kingdom’s then climate secretary, Ed Miliband, had a different way of putting it. Furious at China’s unyielding negotiating stance, Miliband wrote in the Guardian that China had “hijacked” the climate deal.

As the Economist explained, China’s allergy to numbers only appeared when those numbers, even if not China-related, could be interpreted as binding or a stepping stone to binding emissions reduction targets. For instance, China did not remove the Copenhagen Accord’s reference to the $100 billion that developed countries would jointly mobilize each year by 2020 to help developing countries curb emissions and adapt to the effects of global warming. Though China had lobbied for a larger amount of such climate funding, it generally supports sizable transfers of cash and technology from advanced economies to poor countries for climate change purposes. Regardless, to many climate enthusiasts in the developed world, China emerged from Copenhagen as villain number one.

China clearly disagrees. Premier Wen, who led the Chinese delegation in Copenhagen, has vigorously defended his role there as “constructive.” Meanwhile, Western accusations of Chinese “obstructionism” have led various scholars, journalists and activists in and outside of China to help explain Beijing’s positions. Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, a Geneva-based research center of 51 developing countries, blamed industrialized countries for pledging emissions cuts that were a far cry from what the developing world had demanded: at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Jin Jiamen, executive director of the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute, indicated in a phone interview that the offer from developed countries for long-term emissions reduction of 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 appeared meaningless, especially since it was unclear whether the countries involved could in fact deliver. She further observed that the United States, for instance, has so far been unable to pass climate change legislation and whatever commitments President Obama undertook without congressional backing could turn out to be just empty words. Cao Haili, a journalist writing in Caijing, a leading business and finance publication in China, noted that Beijing vetoed the attempt to cut global emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 because it would have severely restricted China’s economic development. Cao added that Lu Xuedu, a member of the Chinese delegation to Copenhagen and deputy director of China’s National Climate Center, has pointed out the following: Global carbon emissions in 1990 were 21 billion tons, from which a 50 percent cut would mean emissions of 10.5 billion tons in 2050; in 2005, China alone emitted 6 billion tons of carbon. At the current rate of Chinese development,10.5 billion tons likely would not be sufficient for China, not to mention the rest of the world.

Ultimately, the myriad of post-Copenhagen analyses and finger-pointing lead to the following conclusion: China will doggedly assert its national interests, regardless of what it may mean for others who act in the name of global interests. Already, Chinese officials are forecasting doom for the next round of global climate talks, scheduled for the end of this year in Mexico. China’s special representative for climate change negotiations, Yu Qingtai, declared that rich and developing countries are unlikely to overcome their disagreements on how to fight global warming. “Major parties” of the process, Yu observed at a February 2010 meeting in Beijing on China’s climate change policies, most likely will not compromise on the issues that stymied a stronger agreement in Copenhagen. Given that China will no doubt remain one of the “major parties” in Mexico and beyond, Beijing appears ready to play the villain, again.

If playing the villain in Copenhagen was not enough, China has recently also aired expressions of doubt on “mainstream” climate science. Soon after Copenhagen, NDRC Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua, China’s top negotiator at the climate summit, informed the world from Delhi that he was keeping “an open mind” on whether global warming was man-made or caused by natural cycles in the earth’s climate. Xie acknowledged that warming was clearly taking place, but urged more and better scientific research be conducted to establish the causes.

Although the United Nations, the IPCC, global warming activists, nongovernmental organizations, and countries around the world have aggressively pushed the mainstream view that climate change is “unequivocal” and “very likely” caused by human activity, Xie noted that there is “one starkly different view, that the climate change or climate warming issues is caused by the cyclical element of nature itself.” He encouraged those who seek to confront the climate change challenge to “adopt an open attitude to scientific research.”

China’s public expression of doubt for climate science comes at a time when mainstream climate science has been covered in a black cloud of dubious research methods and flagrant intellectual intolerance. In November 2009, evidence surfaced that scientists who participated in the IPCC’s research tried to squelch the views of researchers with dissenting viewpoints. Subsequently, the IPCC has expressed “regret” that its 2007 report erroneously claimed that Himalayan glaciers could melt by2035.

Climate scandals notwithstanding, the only thing that would make China a bigger villain to climate enthusiasts than it already is is if it undermined the prevailing climate science and the rationale for global collective effort for climate action. Clearly, China is not yet willing to go that far, as Xie quickly reaffirmed that questions about the science “shall not impede our efforts to combat climate change.” Lu, of China’s National Climate Center, was also quick to add that Xie’s encouragement of further scientific debate and China’s commitment to address global warming were not mutually exclusive.

China’s changing climate

Away from climate scandals and haughty international forums like the Copenhagen summit and its accompanying accusations of Chinese obstructionism, China has actually begun to aggressively tackle the climate change challenge at home.

In the past five years, the Chinese leadership has increasingly acknowledged the effects of a warming climate and officially refers to it as “one of the most serious challenges in the 21st century.” According to Beijing, the list of problems caused by a changing climate in China is long: a rising number of heat waves in the summer, worsening droughts in northern China, an increase in heavy precipitation in southern China, a growing occurrence of snow disasters in western China, and a “conspicuous rise” in “extreme climate phenomena.” The Chinese government has officially recognized numerous disturbing trends via a climate change white paper issued in 2008 and other official reports:

  • The average temperature of the earth’s surface in China rose by 1.1 degrees Celsius from 1908 to 2007, and China experienced 21 warm winters from 1986 to 2007.
  • China’s long coastline makes it susceptible to rising sea surface temperatures and sea levels, which, as of 2007, had increased by 0.9 degree Celsius and 90 millimeters, respectively, over the previous 30 years. In 2008, the sea level along China’s coastline rose to its ten-year high.
  • The glaciers that feed major rivers in China, such as the Yangtze and the Yellow River, are melting uncomfortably fast; as of 2007, the glacier area in northwestern China had shrunk by 21 percent and the thickness of frozen earth in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in western China had decreased by a maximum of 4 to 5 meters in 50 years.
  • China’s glaciers in the west are expected to be reduced by 27.2 percent by 2050.

Climate change aside, China also suffers from serious environmental degradation ranging from the scarcity of drinkable water to severe air pollution. According to the World Bank, from 2001 to 2005, an average of about 54 percent of the seven main rivers in China contained water deemed unsafe for human consumption. Additionally, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, and rampant pollution causes an estimated 750,000 people in China to die early each year due to respiratory illnesses.

China’s leadership has taken notice of the country’s environmental degradation, not just because Chinese citizens have made green activism one of the most exciting, fast-growing, grassroots, civil society phenomena in the country, but also because environmental degradation subtracts from something near and dear to Chinese leaders’ hearts: China’s economic growth figures. A 2007 study titled The Cost of Pollution in China, jointly conducted by the World Bank and the Chinese government, found the following:

  • The combined health and nonhealth cost of outdoor air and water pollution for China’s economy added up to about $100 billion a year (or about 5.8 percent of the country’s GDP in 2003).
  • Water pollution was further exacerbating China’s severe water scarcity problems, bringing the overall cost of water scarcity to about 1 percent of GDP in 2003.
  • According to conservative estimates, the economic burden of premature mortality and morbidity associated with air pollution was 157.3 billion yuan (approx. $23 billion), or 1.16 percent of GDP in 2003.

While environmental degradation is not inherently the same as climate change, they share some key traits in China. They are both ultimately caused by China’s singular push for economic growth and often result from China’s heavy reliance on coal. Both problems could also be alleviated using similar solutions, such as environmental standards, reforestation, or increased reliance on green energy. As a result, Beijing has taken notice of its increasingly glaring environmental and climate challenges and has begun to talk more and more about “sustainable development.”

China acts at home

To combat climate change at home, China has focused on the creation of a new climate change legislative framework, energy conservation and pollution reduction, forestation, and the aggressive promotion of a green economy. It has deployed massive resources to set national goals and enforce new legislative priorities. Strangely enough, China is all of a sudden doing so much, so quickly, that its domestic policies and actions make it one of the front-runners in the global effort to tackle climate change.

On the legislative front, Beijing has issued a succession of notable laws and regulations and policy pronouncements to combat climate change. In particular, China has detailed its goals and policies in two comprehensive official documents. Beijing issued the National Climate Change Program in June 2007 and its first ever white paper on climate change, titled China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, in October 2008. Both documents acknowledge the trend of global warming due to human activities and describe the unique challenges that China faces from a warming climate and the measures that China is undertaking to confront the problem. Additionally, the National Climate Change Program recognizes the increasing importance of climate change to the more traditionally important “economic, social, domestic and foreign issues” and elevated climate change deliberation and coordination to a high-level National Leading Group to Address Climate Change, headed by Premier Wen.

China has also incorporated aggressive energy efficiency and emissions reduction goals into its laws and regulations. Its 11th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2006–2010) set the goal of reducing the country’s energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP) by 20 percent by 2010 compared to 2005 and detailed numerous energy saving programs. Currently, China is drafting its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015), which will reflect China’s pledge at the Copenhagen summit that it would reduce carbon intensity by 40 percent to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

Already, China has made “substantial progress” toward reducing energy intensity by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the China Energy Group of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Although reaching the 20 percent target before the end of this year could prove difficult, Premier Wen announced in March that the country reduced energy intensity by 14.38 percent during the first four years of the 11th Five-Year Plan and has subsequently pledged to use “iron-handed” methods to pursue the remaining reductions.

In addition to improving energy efficiency, China has also set ambitious renewable energy goals. Its Renewable Energy Law, which took effect on January 1, 2006, and was amended on December 26, 2009, sets out the framework for promoting the development and utilization of renewable energy from non-fossil fuel sources such as wind, solar, water, biomass, geothermal, and ocean, and requires electricity grid companies to purchase power produced by renewable power generators in China. Beijing also issued the Medium and Long-Term Development Plan for Renewable Energy in China in September 2007 and spelled out the target that ten percent of all of the country’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020.

Chinese government officials regularly boast that China will meet or exceed its stated renewable energy targets. Currently, China appears on track to meet its goals for 2010: The country’s renewable energy consumption increased to 9.9 percent in 2009 compared to 8.4 percent in 2008. NDRC Vice Chairman Zhang Xiaoqiang informed Britain’s Guardian newspaper in June 2009 that China will likely exceed its 2020 target and could potentially generate 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by then.

To be sure, serious questions exist over whether China’s climate numbers, such as its energy intensity reduction rates, are in fact what Beijing claims. Due to the opacity of China’s system and the regularity with which Chinese officials misreport or fudge numbers, questions abound about the accuracy of official statistics. Regardless, China has put climate change at the top of its legislative agenda and is keen to resist global warming with an aggressive push at home.

China’s ambitious new legislative framework is coupled with a national clean-up and renewal effort, which focuses on restoring damaged resources, decreasing dependence on coal, and promoting energy conservation and efficiency and renewable energy. Beijing has not been shy about spending money on its goals. Of China’s $586 billion financial stimulus package announced in November 2008 and updated in March 2009, approximately five percent, or nearly $30.8 billion, is allocated for energy conservation, pollution reduction, and ecology restoration.

Beijing also has not been shy in touting its successes. Premier Wen told representatives in Copenhagen that between 2003 and 2008, China planted 20 million hectares of forests, and that the total area of man-made forests in China has reached 45 million hectares, the largest in the world. NDRC Vice Chairman Xie informed a Washington audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that from 1980 to 2005, reforestation activity in China absorbed 3.06 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

The Chinese government also boasts that it is conserving energy and reducing China’s dependence on coal. For instance, between 2006 and 2008, it phased out 60.59 million tons of inefficient production capacity for iron, 43.7 million tons for steel, 140 million tons for cement, and 64.45 million tons for coal. In 2006, China mandated that all new coal plants in the country use state-of-the-art technology and launched the Top-1000 Energy-Consuming Enterprises Program, an energy conservation drive that sets energy-saving targets for and monitors their implementation by China’s 1,000 highest energy-consuming enterprises. According to China’s climate change white paper issued in 2008, in 2007, China ordered the closing of more than 2,000 heavily polluting papermaking plants, chemical plants, and printing and dyeing mills, and of 11,200 small coal mines.

China has also attempted to reduce energy use at the household and consumer level. China’s stimulus package in 2008 included $3 billion in funding for electric vehicle pilot projects in 13 cities, and Beijing has removed subsidies for motor fuel and increased its fuel efficiency standard for new urban vehicles to 36.7 miles per gallon, a standard more stringent than that in the United States. The state has also installed millions of energy saving lightbulbs in public facilities and locations throughout the country and agreed to work jointly with the United Nations Development Program last July to phase out incandescent lightbulbs in China over a four-year period. Additionally, Beijing has mandated that all newly constructed buildings in the country must now comply with energy-saving standards.

Meanwhile, China has aggressively pushed into green technology. Beijing believes that going green would modernize its economy, bring environmental benefits, and increase energy security. More important, Beijing is salivating at the prospect of dominating what it believes will be one of the hottest market spaces in the near future.

Already, China eagerly participates in and has benefited significantly from the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows developed countries to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries in order to offset the developed countries’ Kyoto commitments. According to a tally provided by the Financial Times website, between 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol took effect, and December 1, 2009, China synched 37.1 percent of the total CDM projects in the world, more than any other country. Through foreign investments and technology transfers, CDM investments have significantly helped propel forward China’s renewable industry.

The Chinese state itself has also plowed a massive amount of money into subsidizing the development of renewable energy at home. In 2009, China beat the United States for the first time in total investments in clean energy. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, China invested $34.6 billion in 2009 in the clean energy economy, nearly twice as much as the $18.6 billion the United States spent.

The results of massive investment and subsidies from the state are taking shape. In Copenhagen last December, Premier Wen informed the world that between 2005 and 2008, renewable energy in China increased by 51 percent, representing an annual growth rate of 14.7 percent. In 2008, the use of renewable energy reached an equivalent of 250 million tons of standard coal. Furthermore, China has taken a leadership position in multiple renewable energy industries.

In 2009, China became the world’s largest market for wind energy and the world’s largest maker of wind turbines. During the same year, China overtook Germany to become the world’s second largest wind power producer, behind the United States. China’s ambassador to Denmark has boasted that from 2000 to 2008, China saw installed capacity for wind power increase from 340 MW to 12 GW, and will likely see it reach 30 GW, the target originally set for 2020, by the end of this year.

In the past couple of years, China has also become the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. It now makes about 40 percent of all panels in the world, mostly for export. Beijing is boosting capacity and consumption at home through massive government subsidies and has announced, among other initiatives, that it would spend $3 billion on the Golden Sun initiative, a domestic effort to help cover half the cost of installation and power transmission costs for 275 new solar power stations. Launched in 2009, this initiative aims to offer subsidies to projects to develop at least 500 MW of solar power generation in two to three years. Currently, China’s installed photovoltaic capacity, though small, is rapidly growing: From 2007 to 2008, it increased 50 percent, from 100 MW to 150 MW.

There’s more: China has the highest hydroelectric capacity in the world and saw an increase from 79.35 GW to 172 GW from 2000 to 2008. The country accounts for 60 percent of world use of small-scale hydropower and has invested heavily in large-scale dam projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam. Li Yong’an, President of the China Three Gorges Corporation, has reported that compared to a coal-fired power station with equivalent electricity generation capacity, the dam will reduce coal use by 50 million tons each year and carbon dioxide emissions by 100 million tons.

And by 2020, China plans to provide 5 percent of its total installed power-generating capacity via nuclear. China currently has 9 GW of nuclear capacity in operation but expects it to exceed 70 GW by 2020. According to Bloomberg News, though the construction of a one GW nuclear reactor could cost as much as $2.1 billion, China has approved the construction of 28 additional nuclear facilities by 2020, and 20 of those facilities are already in construction. Between now and 2020, China is expected to account for a majority of the world’s new nuclear power plant construction.

American companies are flocking to China to profit from the green rush. Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar is building a gigantic, 2 GW solar plant in Inner Mongolia. The project, scheduled to be completed in 2019, could become the world’s largest solar facility. Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, the third largest U.S. utility, is exchanging information and exploring potential long-term cooperative initiatives with the China Huaneng Group, China’s biggest utility, to reduce coal plant emissions and develop other renewable sources of electricity generation. One key focal point of the two companies’ discussions will be emerging cleaner-coal technologies including carbon capture and sequestration and coal gasification. Westinghouse is building third-generation pressurized water reactors in China and transferring technology to help the Chinese build their own nuclear power plants in the future.

Authoritarian chic

China’s immersion in the green economy and its climate change undertakings are, to say the least, striking. To many Western observers, the sweeping undertaking of greening modern China oozes authoritarian chic.

Already, many of these observers — pundits, government officials, and policy wonks — wish that Washington could push through climate change reform in Chinese fashion. In their policy narrative, climate change demands rapid, large-scale solutions heavily subsidized by gargantuan government funding. Naturally, China’s government-led push to confront climate change evokes their awe and envy. After all, China’s climate agenda, unlike that in the United States, marches on unhindered by businesses that oppose policies that may hurt their bottom line, citizens who refuse to accept the prospect of job loss, skeptics who question the foundations and conclusions of climate science, or lawmakers who put the wellbeing of their districts, states, and constituents before the aspirations of global warming activists.

The lack of such hindrances also explains why numerous senior executives from prominent U.S. businesses regularly bow before Chinese authoritarian chic. They look at the splash of money in China’s energy projects and green initiatives with their eyes gleaming and openly pine for the U.S. government to facilitate mega-billion-dollar business transactions like its Chinese counterpart. Not surprisingly, at a fancy foreign policy meeting in New York last November, the head of a major U.S. energy company touted the need for the United States to copy China’s “can do” attitude and marveled at the efficiency with which significant business agreements involving the Chinese government could be signed. At an official announcement of a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government signed in the presence of Chairman Wu Bangguo of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn lauded China’s energy policies as “progressive” and “forward-looking.” Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers is so seduced by the Chinese government’s green policies that he has been telling everyone that America must move at “China speed” to combat global warming.

Chinese leaders themselves are in a boastful mood about China’s overall accomplishments these days. At the March opening of the annual session of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, Premier Wen spoke generally of socialism’s “advantages,” which included quick decision-making, effective organization, and an ability to “concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.”

While marveling at these large undertakings, China’s fans have a tendency to let the excitement over the growth of China’s green economy obscure the country’s daunting challenges. For the foreseeable future, China will remain heavily reliant on coal for its energy use, regardless of its push into renewables. The country’s greenhouse gas emissions and emissions of other pollutants will remain suffocating, and resources such as water remain scarce. Early this year, the country underwent its worst drought in a century in its southwest region, and according to an official estimate, the drought left 24 million people without drinking water.

Additionally, China’s jaw-dropping numbers do not always tell the full story. For instance, scientists now suspect that the construction of the much touted Three Gorges Dam could have increased seismic activity and resulted in the increased number of earthquakes taking place in China. At the same time, the rapid growth of the country’s wind industry has left approximately one-third of China’s wind farms standing idle at any given time, unable to connect to China’s electricity grid. The central government has updated its Renewable Energy Law and hopes to address the issue by reemphasizing the requirement that state grid companies purchase power generated by renewable energy sources and stiffening the penalties for those that fail to meet this requirement. Whether the amended legislation works or not, foreign observers should not assume that China’s large-scale projects necessarily produce efficiency or effectiveness.

Just as important, Beijing’s green edicts, like all of its other ambitious edicts, face enormous enforcement hurdles. Already, provincial and local government officials have complained that the central government’s new focus on energy and the environment interferes with their respective regions’ economic growth, the success of which factors heavily in their job evaluation. Although China’s 11th Five-Year Plan included measures to evaluate the job performance of provincial officials and enterprise leaders on their success in reducing energy intensity, economic growth remains the number one priority of the country, and local and regional foot-dragging remains a key impediment to the implementation of China’s ambitious climate agenda.

China’s fans also forget that aggressively pursuing economic growth at “China speed” in the past three decades actually helped create the colossal challenge that the country’s climate policies now seek to address. The heavy reliance on coal, lack of environmental standards, rapid industrialization, and the national emphasis on economic growth over all else have resulted in overtaxed resources, undrinkable water, filthy air, and vast emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants (such as sulfur dioxide, which does not contribute to global warming but does cause acid rain). As Jennifer Turner of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum has pointed out, Chinese officials touted the “pollute first, clean up later” philosophy throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even though the government today increasingly recognizes the growing economic and health costs of pollution and energy shortages. While the extraction of hundreds of millions out of poverty is a feat worthy of respect, admirers of “China speed” should remember that the authoritarian government they ogle for going green is the same government that has turned many parts of China black and brown.

More importantly, both the Chinese regime and its sycophants in the West tend to ignore the cost of implementing large undertakings in an authoritarian fashion. While democracies like the United States and Australia hotly debate what climate policies to adopt, China presses forward without similar regard for robust policy deliberations or public dissension. This is too bad. As Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has written, the belief that the government should fund and create green jobs enthusiastically is a “policy fantasy.” A study conducted by Spanish economist Gabriel Calzada Alvarez and colleagues at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos provides the backup evidence: Spain, a global leader in green job creation, spent 571,138 euros (approximately $762,200) and forfeited 2.2 regular jobs for every green job it created. The United States can decide, after some serious cost-benefit analysis, whether the sacrifices to green its economy are worthwhile, but authoritarian China’s “advantages” allow for only the government’s ambitious policy agenda and the accompanying relentless drive for growth and economic gain. China may believe that it will dominate the green tech industry, but time will tell if its large-scale investments are in fact wise.

For now, China unwittingly goes the distance to show the world the absurdities of deploying “efficient” and “enlightened” authoritarianism against climate change. Chinese leaders trot out the country’s one-child policy, implemented over the past three decades and euphemistically dubbed “family planning,” as a fine example of the type of bold and swift action on climate change that China and the world need. Due to the “strong correlation between population growth and climate change,” said Zhao Baige, vice minister of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, the decline in Chinese population in the past three decades “converts into a reduction of 1.83 billion tons of carbon dioxide emission in China per annum.” Clearly, Western democracies do not have these “advantages.”

China’s views and actions on climate change reflect its domestic circumstances and national interests. They encompass the priorities of a country that refuses to bind its growth to international quotas and the ambitions of an authoritarian regime resolved to grab market leadership in a hot new industry. As a result, China’s participation in international climate change politics has earned it much reproach, whereas its domestic push for a green economy has engendered endless praise.

In the climate change debate that incessantly calls for bold, swift, and collective action but features nasty food fights at international forums like the Copenhagen summit and embarrassing scandals like those involving the scientists who compiled the IPCC’s latest report, China’s action and inaction on climate change offer the world not so much bad behavior to condemn or authoritarian chic to ogle, but one more reason to keep an open mind.


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