文章 Articles

What the world is getting wrong about China and climate change

Pressing ahead too fast with emissions cuts will cause pain down the line for China, says senior climate strategist Zou Ji

Article image

The rest of the world mistakenly believes China is now a developed country, says Zou Ji. (Image by sandandtsunamis)

Zou Ji is deputy director of China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy

chinadialogue: How has China’s role in the global response to climate change evolved over the past decade?

Zou Ji: I divide it into three stages. First, from 1989 to 1995, China learned about climate change and started to participate in international discussions. It mainly went along with the global process.

Then, from 1995, when substantive climate negotiations started, to the Bali roadmap in 2007, China shifted from adjustment and familiarisation to active participation in response to calls from other countries. During the negotiations over the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Chinese media commonly rejected the demands and requests of the international community, and that made a deep impression on other nations.

Since 2007, China has become more active, entering a stage of full and positive participation.

Driving this last stage has been the global trend towards low-carbon development and, more importantly, a change in domestic circumstances. During the 10th and 11th Five-Year Plans, China’s economy grew exponentially, bringing alarming increases in energy consumption, spending on power plants and emissions. Ten years ago, China had less than 500 gigawatts of generating capacity – now it has over 1,000 gigawatts. In six or seven years, more capacity was added than in the 50 years after 1949.

Those figures are enough to rattle any economist or China expert. Coal is China’s primary source of energy, and those hundreds of gigawatts of power rely on the burning of coal. Huge numbers of people are at work in coal mines, both large and small, and about half of rail freight capacity is used to move coal. That’s quite something. In the early 1990s, China was an oil exporter. Today, we depend on imports for almost 60% of our consumption. This is unimaginable, in terms of oil price, economic cost and energy security. We have hit the limit of this type of growth.

So China has started to rethink things. The decades leading up to 2050 are crucial for China’s shift from a middle-income developing country to a middle-income developed country, and we can’t yet be sure we’ll hit that goal. What we can be sure of is this: if we carry on with our current model of development, there’s little chance of success.

To sum up, China’s role has shifted from being asked to act, to acting of its own accord. That was determined by the prospects, the basic interests, of China’s billion-plus population. And China has affirmed that approach through its national strategy – everyone has seen the action taken to close down obsolete production and adjust economic structure.

cd: Cutting emissions isn’t easy for an industrialising and urbanising economy. Is the rest of the world asking too much? Forget for a moment the political tussles over how much CO2 can and should be cut – what’s China’s actual ability to reduce emissions?

ZJ: China does have some advantages, such as the opportunity for adjustments in the world economy due to the financial crisis. Also, China has become the world’s second largest economy and the gap with the US is shrinking. Spending on institutional measures and research and development that in the past would have been unthinkable is becoming feasible.

Although the world is still led by the developed nations, the status and negotiating strength of the developing world is also on the increase.

But at the same time, China suffers from some obvious disadvantages.

The international community has some misconceptions, such as believing China is now a developed nation. This could mean China ends up taking on more global responsibility than its capabilities allow. We’ve held the Olympics and sent astronauts into space, but you can’t look at the richest parts of Beijing and Shanghai and assume the whole country is like that. The welfare of hundreds of millions of rural residents isn’t yet assured. Healthcare, unemployment benefits, pensions, all of these are weak. Many Chinese people have no safe drinking water, and our per-capita GDP ranks ninety-something globally. Overall, China is still a developing nation.

Another important disadvantage is the make-up of our natural resources.

Brazil gets 90% of its energy from hydropower. It is fortunate enough to have those resources. If China could replace coal with oil as a primary source of energy, emissions would drop by one third. If we could replace coal with natural gas, they would drop by two thirds. But China’s main resource is coal. We only have limited amounts of other sources of energy, and obviously a reliance on imports is unrealistic. Moving to clean energy is a massive challenge.

Meanwhile, we still need to urbanise and educate hundreds of millions of rural residents. Quality of life needs to be improved. There can be no disagreement about that.

Domestically, there are two dangerous trends we need to steer clear of. One is sticking too rigidly to our traditional way of doing things. The other is changing too quickly, trying to create a low-carbon economy in a Great Leap Forward manner and misjudging China’s circumstances and technological ability.

China can only do its best as it is able. Moving too quickly will actually hold back low-carbon development.

cd: Will China take a different path to that of the
Kuznets curve (the idea that certain environmental indicators start to improve once development has reached a certain stage)?

ZJ: In the current world economic system, it is difficult for a developing nation to cut emissions. China currently accounts for 70% of new emissions each year, and the pressure and expectations it faces are increasing. But China is still on the left-hand side of the Kuznets curve, while the EU is on the right-hand side, beyond the peak. The type of emissions of the two different stages aren’t the same, they can’t be compared. China’s high emissions come mainly from industry and are driven by investment. The EU’s emissions come mostly from building and transportation, and are due to consumption.

At their peak, France’s per-capita emissions were 9 tonnes, while Germany’s approached 15 tonnes. We shouldn’t forget that. You can’t ask China to get to 7 tonnes and level off or fall. It goes against the basic laws of developmental economics. Japan and Australia have per-capita GDPs of US$40,000, but their emissions still haven’t peaked. China’s per-capita GDP is US$5-6,000. The curve is still going up.

China can peak at a lower level than the US and EU did historically. But even a per-capita peak of 10 tonnes means total emissions of 13 billion tonnes. That’s more than I can imagine. It’s a huge challenge for China.

cd: Historically, EU countries cut emissions by exporting production. We can’t do that this time, so where can China cut emissions?

ZJ: Through technological advances. Energy efficiency will be the key battlefield.

China’s population will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. But even if that growth is very small, the imports and exports, investment and consumption that per-capita GDP depends on must continue to rise. Currently, that growth is mostly driven by investment, but consumption would similarly increase emissions and energy use, through transport and buildings.

For decades, China has sought to adjust its economic structure in favour of the service sector. But if that means increased use of transportation and freight, emissions will still grow. The service sector as a whole has low emissions, but that kind of industrial structure needs a certain GDP level. It’s not just a numbers game.

In manufacturing, there is a clear distinction between low-end operations – with high emissions and low profits – and high-end operations, with low emissions and high profits. Again, we see the importance of technology.

Increased manufacturing and urbanisation will continue for the foreseeable future. What would be the easiest way to cut emissions? To send everyone to the fields overnight. But that’s not possible, that would just increase poverty. Some expectations are over-simplistic. China still needs to supply safe drinking water for hundreds of millions of rural residents and ensure houses don’t collapse in medium-strength earthquakes. More concrete and steel means more energy consumption – that’s the basic situation.

And energy-hungry EU and US lifestyles have had a huge impact. They have a sense of superiority and leadership, and their culture informs the youth of developing nations – the consumers, managers, chairmen and professors of the future. Every day they see adverts for cars, big houses, SUVs, for high consumption, and they think that’s what success is. 

If we’re going to change things, then the world needs to act together and change our ways of life. 

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default thumb avatar



Michael P Totten

Professor Zou Li makes many pragmatic points, and is so accurate in emphasizing energy efficiency. With all of China's new building construction, appliance manufacturing, and factories producing materials and goods, efficiency gains are near zero cost and even Factor five to 10 efficiency gains are cost-effective against new supply.Efficiency gains could satisfy half or more of China's new energy needs at less cost than expanding coal supplies. In addition, China now leads the world both in production and use of wind power. Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Tsinghua University’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering concluded that China’s favorable onshore wind resources could provide nearly 25 trillion kWh of electricity annually, more than five times national consumption in 2012. The team also made a key point, “[A]ssuming a guaranteed price of 0.516 Yuan (7.6 U.S. cents) per kWh for delivery of electricity to the grid over an agreed initial average period of 10 years, wind could accommodate all the demand for electricity projected for 2030, about twice current consumption.” China has a feed-in tariff, which can help drive wind over coal.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Jonathan Katz

It is quite feasible for China to replace coal with imported natural gas. China has a big trade surplus, and it would be exchanging consumer goods for gas. Switching electric power and transportation to natural gas will solve the air quality problems of Chinese cities, because gas burns much cleaner than coal or liquid hydrocarbons.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous








但是一旦这个被创造出来,它就很有可能会完全终结中国长期以来使用煤炭能源的历史,当然也同时也终结对化石燃料的依赖。可以参阅CHEAP GREEN以及MOVING BEYOND OIL: www.aesopinstitute.org


Nikola Tesla believed that the heat present in the atmosphere represented more energy than all of the coal and oil combined.

I believe production of electricity and heat from ambient or Zero Point Energy may soon prove practical.

Imagine electric cars with unlimited range and no need for external recharge. Cars and trucks would become mobile power plants, selling electricity to the grid when suitably parked.

Solid-state magnetic generators were demonstrated by Hans Coler in Germany, in 1926, to distinguished scientists.

Coler demonstrated a 6,000 watt generator in 1937. The Allies bombed his laboratory late in WWII. After the war he moved to England. British Intelligence published a Report, now on the internet, about Coler’s work in 1946. See: http://chavascience.com/papers/the-coler-devices

Self-sustaining magnetic motors and generators have a long history of deluded inventors and several scams. However, they are not impossible. Only extremely difficult to design and build.

Such inventions are now likely to end China’s dependence on coal – as well as all our dependence on fossil fuels. See CHEAP GREEN and MOVING BEYOND OIL at www.aesopinstitute.org

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

威尔· 达比斯盖





Will Dubitsky

Trying to predict the future based on past trends does not tell all. China has become the number one clean energy market in the world and that clean energy technology manufacturing is growing so fast that the jobs associated with this growth are staggering. As well, the rapid migration to green energy sources offers China a path to greater energy independence while addressing it's emissions challenges.
While thermal generation (e.g.: coal-fired generating plants) continues to dominate new installations of electrical power generation, 50.7 GW in 2012, wind energy came in second with a record 15.9 GW installed in 2012. China currently has 67.7 GW of installed wind power capacity and the projections are for 200 GW by 2020.
Regarding solar energy, there are 14 GW in the pipeline and projections for 2020 are in the order of 50 GW. On global markets, China now supplies 50% of the global solar market, up from 1% in 2004.
On jobs, China's solar photovoltaic (electricity) sector employed 300,000 in 2011 and the solar heating/cooling (thermal) sector, 800,000. The wind sector alone is expected to represent 500,000 jobs by 2020 up from 150,000 in 2009.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Sounds reasonable but...

What Zou Li says sounds pretty reasonable, but what he leaves out is also very important. As a government official, he can not blame the corrupt political system for any of the existing problems.

For example, China's oil production creates a low-quality product that causes horrible levels of emissions, but since it is a state monopoly, and maintained by those with a lot of power, it is difficult to change.

Political reform is always the elephant in the room that can not be mentioned in any conversation with a Chinese politician.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



well said

Well said. It is reasonable to expect that as the most pressing needs of the people are met, more efforts would then be applied to such issues as the well-being of the least well-off and the health and quality of the environment. Expecting the reverse sequence is impractical. I wonder if China, previously somewhat accustomed to the occasional draconian central directive, will become as reluctant to approach global environmental issues in that fashion as other wealthier societies are, as China becomes a top-rank country in per capita terms and not only in national terms..

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



China must further decrease its population

China is to be commended for having prevented some 300 million births with its one-child policy.
But that drop is not enough. As the per capita CO2 emission of each citizen rises in the country's process of becoming "industrialized," their total CO2 output will rise -- and there are only two ways to deal with this: One is the program of numerous steps described in this article. The other is to decrease the number of people in the country. Both will be necessary.
It may sound arrogant for an American to tell the Chinese that they must reduce their population. But I have said many times that all high-emitting countries, developed and developing, should be doing this -- including the U.S. India too, as it aspires to develop an industrialized, westernized, life-style, will have to reduce its population drastically.
What's essential is that scientists agree on what the maximum world yearly total of CO2 emissions must be if there's to be any hope of reversing climate change. Then, track world per capita emissions. Dividing the first by the second will tell us how many industrialized people the planet can hold.
Don't be surprised if it's near two billion.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Policy tunnel trough the Kuznets Curve?

Dr. Jan Kunnas

Hi all, I wrote some years ago a conference paper with my colleague, asking whether there could be a possibility for China to tunnel trough the Kuznets curve. Our conclusion were that as the per capita emissions of carbon dioxide are above the global average in all 27 high-income OECD countries, they provide no examples for China to follow in order to tunnel through. Their example allows so far only levelling the slope. Chinas recent large investments in renewable energy provides though some hope that China might do it without us showing the lead. I hope so. http://www.academia.edu/505966/Are_There_Policy_Tunnels_for_China_to_Follow

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



George F Gitlitz, MD, Sarasota, FL

China must further decrease its population

I did not intend my remarks to be anonymous, and I apologize for that happening. I had included my name, but in the process of editing down "characters" I inadvertently deleted it.
I wish China every success in achieving the modern society they deserve -- but regret that the solution will have to include having a smaller population. But that is the reality that all of us on this planet have to face, and unfortunately too few yet do.
George F Gitlitz, MD, Sarasota, FL

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


中国有降低污染等级的压力。我是一个环保主义者。 如果中国能够注重效率和关注其他事情,比如说回收和保护,这将有助于长远发展。

An American

There is pressure for China to cut their polution level. I'm an environmentalist by nature. If China can focus on efficency and other things like recycling and conservation that will help in the long run.