CHINA HAS THREE imperatives when it comes to climate change: to use the issue to cement its growing position as a world power; to deal with its domestic pollution problems so that they don’t become a political issue that could challenge the Party’s primacy; and to establish industrial leadership in ‘green’ technologies including renewable fuels.
The symbolism of Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama jointly ratifying the Paris climate change agreement (Cop 21) will not be lost domestically or internationally. Xi will take the opportunity of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou to reinforce that message that China is at the centre of world affairs and that, as state media put it, developed and emerging countries are “in the same boat, with China charting the course ahead this time”.
The move by the world’s two biggest polluters is clearly a significant step for the climate change deal, which needs 55 nations accounting for at least 55% of the world’s emissions for it to come into effect. China and the United States raise the percentage at a stroke to more than 40% from 1%. It just now needs the EU and a couple of other countries to follow suit to get the deal over the line.
Beijing’s Paris accord commitment is to cut its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% from 2005 levels by 2030 and to increase non-fossil fuel sources in primary energy consumption to about 20%. While those targets don’t necessarily mean a cut in absolute emissions levels, it will slow their growth meaningfully. China committed at Paris that they would peak in ‘around 2030’.
The large steps China has taken in energy efficiency and the rebalancing of the economy away from industrialisation and towards more services will aid it in hitting those goals. Becoming more of a low-carbon economy will also help achieve its domestic goals of lessening pollution, a perpetual point of popular perturbation and protest. Environmental NGOs are kept on a short leash for fear they are a seed of political organisation.
At the same time, China has developed into the world’s largest market for hydropower, nuclear, wind and solar energy and increasingly aims to make those indigenous industries, serving both the ambitions of developing low-carbon urbanisation and bringing economic development to some of the poorest but also windiest and sunniest provinces. As relatively new industries, there is also more opportunity for China’s new found desire to be innovative to flourish, as well as for its manufacturers to find new export markets for wind turbines, solar panels and even nuclear reactors.