China and climate

Where is the world’s biggest transit system? Not London or New York, but Shanghai, with 282 stations and 420km of tracks. The national government has committed $150 billion for transit between now and 2015. That is in comparison with the $2 billion per year the United States federal government is spending on transit nationwide.

It seems possible that China will end up being the critical country, when it comes to deciding what course humanity will follow on climate change mitigation. For one thing, there is so much growth there that there are constant new opportunities to design things in innovative ways. For another, their system of government may be better suited to considering things from a long-term perspective than those in the west, as well as potentially more resistant to distortions of science.

Understanding what is happening in China is very challenging for outsiders – who can choose to focus on the ominous pace of coal power plant construction, or on the emergence of China as a dominant player in wind power.

Some of the biggest questions seem to be:

  1. How will China’s domestic energy system develop? Will they be willing to shift away from coal, despite the economic risks?
  2. What role will China play in multilateral climate negotiations? Will they ever join up with the U.S. to form the backbone of a strong new agreement?
  3. How will China’s bilateral relations with other developing states affect their development and emission trajectories? Will China just be a rapacious consumer of raw materials, or could it export low-carbon forms of development?
  4. Will the Chinese Communist Party remain dominant? If not, will it be succeeded by something more democratic, something chaotic, or something else entirely?
  5. What effect will the example of China have on the decisions made in other places?

None of that can really be known in advance, but it can all be watched with interest.

11 thoughts on “China and climate

  1. Tristan

    “What role will China play in multilateral climate negotiations? Will they ever join up with the U.S. to form the backbone of a strong new agreement?”

    If they do, they will join as a partner and not as a lackey. The fact that China doesn’t follow US orders, combined with China’s strength, is a good reason to think US “stability” (i.e. the threat of war and nuclear weapons against those who step out of line) will be inadequate for imposing a world carbon agreement. (The growing independence of Latin American is another).

    The world needs to find a new way of having multilateral relations if we want to avoid endless war, and endless inability to engage in long term planning with common species interests in mind. We need to establish security that does not rely on violence somewhere else – because the easiest place to displace violence is the future state of the climate.

    China has huge advantages over shareholder-capital run countries; the leadership can make decisions to radically change the face of the economy overnight – and not get thrown out when these decisions negatively affect share prices. Changes we’ve seen so far were likely more for the sake of prestige than beginning the real shifts towards a no-carbon economy – but China is eminently capable of the real transition, which will require something like a set of 5-year plans.

    The truly amazing thing about the US is resistance to climate legislation, despite the analysis showing that in the short term the effect on the economy will actually be positive. This shows that analyses which refer to “short term” versus “long term” economic interest are missing the actual incentives on which decisions are being made – which are based entirely on immediate effects on share price – which has very little to do with real projections of future earnings and everything to do with perception, and libidinal production. This is a bad way to run a country.

  2. .

    UN climate talks in China end without breakthrough
    By Roger Harrabin

    UN climate talks in China have ended without a major breakthrough and with angry words about the US from Beijing.

    At the talks in Tianjin, China blamed the US for failing to meet its responsibilities to cut emissions and for trying to overturn UN principles.

    The US accused China of refusing to have its voluntary energy savings verified internationally.

    But there was some progress toward the next round of climate talks in Mexico in November.

    There are hopes that the meeting in Cancun could agree details of a fund to transfer $100bn (£63bn) a year from rich countries to help poor nations cope with the projected consequences of climate change.

    That sum is described by developing nations as substantial but inadequate.

  3. .

    China becomes global leader in clean energy: study

    CANBERRA, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) — China has become a leader in clean energy efforts, outstripping the United States and Japan, and leaving Australia lagging far behind, a study commissioned by the Australia’s Climate Institute showed on Tuesday.

    Global research unveiled countries including Britain, China and the U.S. already have set up a higher direct and indirect carbon pricing.

    The Vivid Economics report, commissioned by Australia’s Climate Institute think-tank, showed China’s incentives to encourage low- carbon generation, such as solar and wind power, are almost triple those in the U.S.

    Measures to encourage renewable energy, as well as imposing taxes on dirtier forms of generation, like burning coal, has placed China above the U.S., Japan, Australia and South Korea in a six-country study, while only second to Britain.

  4. Milan Post author

    It is hard to get a good idea of everything that is going on in China, when it comes to energy and climate change. It does seem very plausible that China’s leaders are doing a better job of dealing with climate science. One regrettable feature of political systems of those like Canada and the U.S. is that it actually seems easier for people who are grossly ignorant about science to get elected than it is for those who are well versed.

    Still, it looks like China is continuing to emphasize economic growth over sustainability. They may be intentionally emulating the development path of places like Japan and South Korea. Ultimately, though, if China and the rest of the world’s big emitters continue to use one another’s inaction as an excuse to let emissions keep rising, they will be locking themselves into a suicide pact.

    Someone needs to commit to really kicking off the global mitigation movement. Given the prominent role of scientists in the Chinese government – and the arguably greater emphasis on long-term stability within China – perhaps they will be the ones to do so.

  5. .

    As Richard McGregor shows in The Party, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reforms’ proceeded in a radically different way. In the organisation of the economy (and, up to a point, the culture), what is usually perceived as ‘Communism’ was abandoned, and the gates were opened to what, in the West, is called ‘liberalisation’: private property, the pursuit of profit, a life-style based on hedonist individualism etc. The Party maintained its hegemony, not through doctrinal orthodoxy (in official discourse, the Confucian notion of the Harmonious Society replaced practically all reference to Communism), but by securing the status of the Communist Party as the only guarantee of China’s stability and prosperity.

    One consequence of the Party’s need to maintain hegemony is its close monitoring and regulation of the way Chinese history is presented, especially that of the last two centuries. The story ceaselessly recycled by the state media and textbooks is of China’s humiliation, which is supposed to have begun with the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and ended only with the Communist victory in 1949. To be a patriot is to support the rule of the Communist Party. When history is used for the purposes of legitimation, it cannot support any substantial self-critique. The Chinese learned the lesson of Gorbachev’s failure: full recognition of the ‘founding crimes’ brings the entire system down: they must be disavowed. True, some Maoist ‘excesses’ and ‘errors’ were denounced (the Great Leap Forward and the widespread famine that followed it; the Cultural Revolution), and Deng’s assessment of Mao’s role (70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative) is enshrined in official discourse. But Deng’s assessment functions as a formal conclusion that makes any further discussion or elaboration superfluous. Mao may be 30 per cent bad, but he continues to be celebrated as the founding father of the nation, his body in a mausoleum and his image on every banknote. In a clear case of fetishistic disavowal, everyone knows that Mao made errors and caused immense suffering, yet his image remains magically untainted. This way, the Chinese Communists can have their cake and eat it: economic liberalisation is combined with the continuation of Party rule.

  6. .

    But China is no Singapore (neither, for that matter, is Singapore): it is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and keeps capitalism under control. Every year, thousands of rebellions by workers, farmers and minorities have to be put down by the police and the army. No wonder official propaganda insists obsessively on the notion of the harmonious society: this very excess bears witness to the opposite, to the threat of chaos and disorder. One should bear in mind the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda: the more ‘harmony’ is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality. China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.

  7. .

    Shell, China sign deal to explore Canadian oil

    By Shaun Polczer, Calgary Herald November 10, 2010

    In yet another sign of growing Chinese interest in Canada’s energy resources, the Chinese national oil company and Royal Dutch Shell on Tuesday signed a deal that will see the companies partner up on oil and gas projects in Canada.

    The China National Petroleum Company – the parent of PetroChina, one of the world’s largest publicly trade oil companies – reported that its president, Jiang Jiemin and Shell CEO Peter Voser signed a memorandum of agreement in Beijing on “integrated co-operation” of oil and gas projects in Canada and coal bed methane development in China.

    No other details of the agreement were disclosed but speculation is that the companies would be looking to develop oilsands.

    In Calgary, Shell spokesman Phil Vircoe declined to confirm the agreement or what it would entail, although Bloomberg reported that Li Lusha, a Beijing-based spokeswoman for Shell’s China operations, confirmed the accords in a separate telephone interview. Bloomberg also reported that a PetroChina spokesman in Hong Kong confirmed the CNPC-Shell deal without giving further details.

  8. .

    Liang Congjie
    Liang Congjie, modern China’s first environmentalist, died on October 28th, aged 78

    Nov 18th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION

    UNTIL the air began to clog and burn, the rivers turned to sludge and desert sand began to sift into the streets of Beijing, China’s people did not much care what Mao Zedong’s great leap into industrialisation had done to the motherland. Pollution did not happen in socialist countries; it was a Western, capitalist evil. But Liang Congjie noticed. He realised he no longer saw the blue skies of the Beijing of his boyhood, or the courtyard trees he had loved to climb. In the rugged south of Shanxi province, the water in the mountain streams was now black with coal dust and undrinkable.

    As a historian Mr Liang was a traditionalist, sighing sometimes that nothing could surpass the wooden temples of the Tang dynasty; by breeding he was a preservationist, the son of a distinguished architect who had famously sat weeping on the medieval walls of Beijing the night before Mao’s bulldozers demolished them. Some were inclined to think that Mr Liang was less than committed to China’s progress. But he was determined that China should surge forward armed with green sensibility, and a green heart.

    Friends of Nature, founded by him in 1994 with three colleagues from the Academy for Chinese Culture, was China’s first legal NGO and the first committed to protecting the country’s environment. At its inaugural meeting it drew 60 members; there are now around 10,000. As Mr Liang proudly said, it was for everybody: housewives, students, food-sellers in the market, even workers from the Capital Steel Corporation factory where Mr Liang, each January, would gather snow in plastic bottles to show schoolchildren the little black specks of pollution in it.

  9. .

    5 Indicators That China is a Key Player in Clean Energy

    1. Admitting It Has a Carbon Problem. – China has recently admitted to being the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter, and outwardly recognizing a problem is the first step towards making it better, right? Even though data have shown for several years that China leads the word in its GHG pollution, China has also been taking steps to increase its efforts to combat climate change and ramp up clean energy technology.

    2. Significantly Growing Wind Energy Capacity. – According to an October 2010 Bloomberg New Energy Finance release [PDF], in 2010, China “will install 25% more new capacity than in 2009, when the country set a record with 14,000 new megawatts,” whereas in the United States, “installations [of wind turbines are expected] to fall 39% in 2010 compared to 2009.”

    3. Surpassing the U.S. as The Most Attractive Market For Renewables Investment. – The August 2010 Renewable energy country attractiveness indices by Ernst and Young “sees the U.S. relinquishing its top position held since 2006 — dropping two points to slip behind China, effectively crowning the Asian giant the most attractive market for renewables investment.” Green jobs and investment are moving from the U.S. to China because the American government is not implementing policies that would give more confidence to investors. Ben Warren of Ernst and Young stated, “China has all the benefits of capital, government will, and it’s a massive market.” In 2009, an American company called Applied Materials opened a new research and development facility in China. Mark Pinto, the company’s CTO said, “We’re doing R&D in China because they’re becoming a big market whose needs are different from those in the U.S.” He added that he also sees China becoming “the biggest solar market in the world.”

    4. Setting Targets To Reduce Its Carbon Intensity. – In response to climate change, last year China pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent compared to 2005 levels. A recent NRDC working paper [PDF] states that “China‘s CO2 intensity target is a big step in the right direction and it provides the right incentives for future improvements in reducing emissions.”

    5. Doing Something About Coal-Fired Power Plants. – China still gets around 80 percent of its energy from coal, which means the country is continuing to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Chinese are trying to balance this by building more efficient coal power plants and by shutting down less efficient plants. But China needs to do a lot more in order to end its reliance on coal.

  10. .

    When some 3,000 Communist Party delegates gather inside the Great Hall of the People for the once-a-year sitting of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which starts Saturday, they will pass a document that is expected to finally set the world’s largest second-largest economy – and largest polluter – on a greener course. Premier Wen Jiabao will open the National People’s Congress with a prepared speech that will lay out the broad principles for the country’s next five-year plan. It will include hard new energy efficiency and pollution-reduction targets aimed at putting the country’s notoriously dirty industries on a more sustainable path. Massive new investments in renewable sources of energy are also expected as the country tries to gradually wean itself off its reliance on coal, and sources say an “environment tax” is in the works, though it may not be immediately introduced.

    The green plan, combined with a move toward slower, more sustainable growth and measures to narrow China’s widening income gap signal a new effort by the leadership to guide the country away from a growth-at-any-cost approach.

    Pan Jiahua, executive director of the sustainable development research centre at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the five-year plan would make clear China “is very serious about a green transformation.”

    The environment is a hot-button issue in China, especially among those – like the country’s senior leadership – who have to endure life in Beijing and other heavily polluted cities. The air quality index in Beijing now regularly exceeds 500, the level previously considered the top of the air-pollution scale. Last month it hit 595, as choking smog cut visibility to 200 metres in some parts of the city.

    Green measures appear set to share top billing in the five-year plan with an effort to deal with the yawning gap between the rich and poor. The official Xinhua newswire reported Wednesday that the NPC would consider a proposal to raise the minimum threshold for paying income tax, a move that could exempt tens or even hundreds of millions of people from having to pay tax.

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