China’s Kinda-Sorta-Oughta Plan to Fight Climate Change

Is Beijing suddenly getting on board in the fight against global warming?

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Photo by Stringer - AFP - Getty
Photo by Stringer - AFP - Getty

Just one day after Barack Obama’s administration unveiled its tough new climate change rules, China seemingly followed suit, hinting Tuesday that it would put an absolute cap on greenhouse gas emissions in its next five-year plan, which begins in 2016.

But it’s not quite so cut and dried: The advisor whose words at a Beijing conference sparked the story, He Jiankun, said he and other experts merely urged the Chinese government to cap emissions, the Financial Times noted.

"This is our experts’ advice and suggestion," he told the Financial Times. "The government has not decided on this policy yet. We hope to implement this in the 13th five-year plan, but the plan has not been fixed yet."

Not to be overlooked, however, is the real effort China is making to tackle pollution, both the kind that is only too visible — such as the smog that regularly blankets Chinese cities — and the kind that isn’t, such as greenhouse gases.

Pollution has become an existential challenge for Chinese leaders. Protests against the country’s terrible environmental record, whether dirty air, dirty water, dirty factories, or dead pigs, leave Beijing with uncomfortable flashbacks to the Tiananmen Square protests, which were 25 years ago this Wednesday, June 4.

That explains, in part, China’s world-leading investments in renewable energy such as wind and solar power. The Chinese also have an ambitious schedule for nuclear energy deployment, and some individual provinces have banned coal plants. Although China uses as much coal as the rest of the world combined, Chinese energy experts increasingly say the end is nigh — or rather, that China’s coal consumption will peak sooner than previously predicted. At the height of China’s economic boom, it was building roughly one coal-fired power plant every week.

Simultaneously, China is trying to move away from energy-intensive heavy manufacturing and embrace a more service-oriented economy, which will require less energy — and produce fewer emissions — for each dollar of output. All that promises to have big implications for next year’s global climate change summit and for domestic U.S. politics.

"China cannot continue its current trends, either in terms of pollution or in terms of energy supply," said Wang Tao, an energy and climate expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. "The government is just trying to make this transition as smooth and soft as possible."

Climate watchers still digesting the Obama administration’s biggest step toward tackling greenhouse gas emissions — a plan to cut emissions from the power sector 30 percent by 2030 — got pie-eyed when news broke that China apparently would cap emissions too. Part of their enthusiasm came from the fact that the Chinese move, if fully carried out, could re-energize lagging efforts to create a global carbon-trading system.

China is already the world’s second-largest carbon-trading market, with seven local pilot programs. It wants to turn those regional, sometimes troubled, efforts into a national emissions-trading scheme similar to Europe’s and the one nixed by the U.S. Congress in 2010. However, Chinese officials have been racking their brains on how to do so.

One problem facing Chinese climate programs: They’re meant to make dirty energy more expensive and cleaner alternatives more attractive. But China’s stranglehold on domestic energy prices means the programs don’t work as well as they could.

If China does move toward a cap on carbon emissions, that could make it easier for international climate negotiators to reach some sort of agreement at next year’s U.N. climate summit in Paris. Energy analysts say that the Obama administration’s newly announced measures, which target the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, would likely open the door to more action from other big emitters, including China.

And even if formal steps by the Chinese government to cap emissions are years away from fruition, it will also make it harder for opponents of the president’s climate push to fight his environmental initiatives. Many Republicans have criticized the administration’s climate plans, especially the new rules to clean up the power sector, because in the absence of any similar action from big emitters such as China, they worry the new rules will poleax the American economy and provide few global environmental benefits.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a prominent voice on the Senate environment committee, criticized the new power plant rules Monday precisely because they aren’t binding on countries such as India and China. Likewise, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, has derided U.S. efforts to fight climate change on the grounds that China will continue its environmentally damaging growth path regardless of unilateral U.S. actions.

The apparent trial balloon floated Tuesday could change that conversation, said Ailun Yang, a China climate researcher at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

"If this happens, it would show that there is shared concern among the world’s biggest emitters that climate change should be taken more seriously. In general, the whole rhetoric around climate action has changed and is evolving."

That’s a big if, however. As Tuesday wore on, the difference between official Chinese government policy and what Chinese government advisors would like to see happen became clearer.

Still, the mere internal suggestion that China should embrace firm climate targets reflects a fundamental shift, Yang said.

"Right now, it’s both technically possible and politically acceptable for China to be talking about an absolute cap [on emissions]; and that’s a very important step forward," she said. He Jiankun– chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change — got an earful about the new Environmental Protection Agency rules during a visit to Washington in May.

What was especially intriguing about his comments at the conference in Beijing, aside from the timing, is that an absolute cap on pollution would be something of a departure for China.

Beijing’s formal environmental goals are designed to
make the economy relatively cleaner but allow overall greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising as the economy keeps growing. The latest official targets, for instance, are meant to cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 2015, rather than cutting carbon emissions outright. China is struggling to meet even those lower targets. Meeting these potentially more ambitious ones will be even harder.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP