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Changing Climate in China?

Jake Schmidt

Posted November 2, 2008

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China just released a "white paper" on its "policies and actions on climate change" which outlines the challenges of climate change to China (e.g., both the impacts and the challenge posed by its reliance on coal), its strategies to address emissions, and the outline of its position for the negotiations to reach a post-2012 international global warming agreement in Copenhagen.

What actions developing countries undertake to address global warming pollution will be one of the central elements of the agreement to be reached in Copenhagen.  And in the eyes of many policymakers this is largely (although not completely) a question of what is China going to do.  So anytime that China says something on climate change all ears perk up.  This used to be a rare occurrence, but China has increasingly made public statements on climate change (e.g., the release of their first National Climate Change Programme last year and President Hu Jintao's speech to the nation's top party leaders as my colleague David Doniger discussed). 

So when Minister Xie Zhenhua of the National Development Reform Commission (the Ministry that directs climate change policy) spoke at a press conference and released a "white paper" on climate change, I was paying attention (as were others).

So, what did they say?  In essence they laid out their three part vision for the international agreement (although this wasn't explicitly how it was framed):

The first part of this vision is that:

"Developed countries should be responsible for their accumulative emissions and current high per-capita emissions, and take the lead in reducing emissions..." (as reported by the Associated Press).

...and their second element is that developed countries need to take the lead in:

"providing financial support and transferring technologies to developing countries".

Their final piece was a point they've made before but never in official government statements.  Specifically that:

"The developing countries, while developing their economies and fighting poverty, should actively...reduce their emissions to the lowest degree..."

Basically what they are saying is: (1) developed countries need to take the lead in reducing emissions; (2) developed countries need to support developing countries by providing finance and technology support; and (3) developing countries should reduce their emissions as much as possible, while addressing poverty and sustainable development.  As the BBC is reporting Minister Zhenhua, said they would consider limits on their worst polluting industries if rich nations handed over the technology to help clean them up...hinting at a "sectoral approach" which is being discussed as a part of the international agreement (as I discussed here).

So, they are now publicly saying we will reduce our global warming emissions.  But it is hard to tell how much they will reduce their level of emissions under this framework.  They aren't being as explicit on the level of reduction as the European Union Environment Ministers just called for when they suggested that developing countries as a whole cut their emissions by 15-30% below the levels they would have been otherwise.  So their rhetoric has changed for the better...have their actions changed?

Are they committing to anything different to address global warming and energy issues?  The short answer is no.  The main proposals in the paper are the measures that China has already been undertaking (see here for a summary of some of these actions).  I won't go into detail on what exactly they are saying that they are doing, but here are a couple of highlights (worth reading the full detail as there are a lot more measures than I list): 

  • Cut energy use per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) 20% between 2005 and 2010.  They have cut the intensity by a reported 1.8% and 3.7% in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
  • Supporting "green buildings" and other energy efficiency in buildings and appliances.
  • Shutting down small inefficient electricity, iron & steel making, cement, chemical, and pulp & paper plants.
  • Working to restrain the development and expansion of export-oriented high-energy consuming industries.
  • Enforce and improve the vehicle efficiency standard and other transportation efficiency improvements (as my colleague Barbara Finamore discussed).
  • Deploying renewable energy (e.g., China has the 5th largest installed wind capacity in the world and is the world leader in solar energy collectors).
  • Promote carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
  • Making provincial officials and leaders of key companies responsible for their performance in reducing energy consumption-remember this can be a powerful tool in China where performance against Communist Party and government metrics can be a determining factor in how fast an official moves up in the leadership ranks.

So this paper from the Chinese government provides more detail on the efforts that it is undertaking and the potential impact of those measures.  Improving the transparency of countries' mitigation actions will be one of the key elements of the post-2012 agreement to be reached in Copenhagen as developing countries committed in the Bali Roadmap that their actions will be done in a measurable, reportable, and verifiable manner. 

But it is hard to tell whether China is being more transparent about their actions and progress.  They are listing the actions they are taking, but for a number of them it is hard to tell how meaningful the actions are as there are little specifics.  For others, they list specifics but the quantitative metrics they use are difficult to compare with factors listed elsewhere in the paper.  So, it will be essential that these efforts are delivered on-the-ground and become more transparent as we lead in to Copenhagen and beyond.

It will be crucial for the new Administration and Members in Congress to engage quickly and effectively in reaching out to China on climate change and energy issues.  And, the Chinese have opened the door to a much more fruitful engagement as they have become more forthright with their actions and views.  So, what used to be a cool wind blowing between China and the US may have warmed (just a bit).  But we still need more warming (at least on this aspect) if we are going to make the progress that we need.



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Franke JamesNov 3 2008 09:40 AM

Very interesting to read your analysis of China's white paper on climate change. There have been several news reports recently which reflect China's shifting position:

In Business Green News:
1. China passes stringent green laws
2. China considers pollution tax

In the Telegraph UK:
China to become world’s largest investor in green energy

I would be interested to hear your opinion on whether these initiatives are merely PR or truly reflect a desire by China to fight climate change and become a leader in green technologies.

The Chinese spent more than $15 billion USD cleaning up the air for the Beijing Olympics. I wonder whether that 'loss of face' is reflected in this new white paper?

Thanks for this opportunity to ask you these questions! If they are beyond the scope of your article, or take it off track, you can contact me directly.


[Note: The links I cited below can be found under my visual essay, Dear Prime Minister, ]

Jake SchmidtNov 3 2008 12:31 PM

Thanks for the comment Franke. The things listed by the Chinese are active policies/programs that they are in various stages of implementing. But, China is going through various "growing pains" on enforcement and implementation at the local/provincial level. Our China Program is working actively at these levels (as well as the Central Government level) to help with translating these objectives to actions on the ground.

I think, as my colleague David Doniger highlighted (linked in the post), China is now starting to see "its place in the world" as an important element of its policy direction. This was occurring in the lead-up to the Olympics so I would imagine it would carry afterwards. Only time will tell, of course.

One driving element of China's effort these days is to reduce their energy intensity by 20% between 2005 and 2010. So, keep your eye on how well they do towards that effort as it will be a strong signal of what they are actually able to accomplish on the ground.

Franke JamesNov 3 2008 12:41 PM


Thank you! I appreciate your reply and insights -- it helps me to make sense of what I'm reading from a 'bird's eye' perspective. I'll look forward to reading more articles here.


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