I first spoke to Barbara Finamore, Senior Attorney and Senior Strategic Director for Asia at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as I was planning a trip to Beijing ahead of the launch C40's China Buildings Programme. With over 30 years of experience focused on China, her advice and guidance was invaluable. This weekend I finally sat down to read her new book, which asks one of the big global questions: "Will China Save the Planet?
China, as many of you will have no doubt observed, has long been used as a tired excuse for inertia - "why should we break our backs reducing our emissions," Finamore records people asking, "when China is just going to keep on burning coal like crazy and warming the planet anyway." Sadly, this view remains all too common.
This book quickly offers a more in depth and rigorous analysis. As I finished I was texting friends, arguing that for time invested I couldn't think of many better ways to advance their knowledge on such an important issue. In this quick blog i've looked over my notes from this slim and punchy volume and highlighted three core talking points I took away:
1. China's domestic view on climate risk
"But do the Chinese care about climate change?" I'm asked when my job comes up at social engagements. If only this were as pointedly farcical as when Sting asked if the Russians love their children too. Yes. They do. On both accounts. China is well established in assessing climate and environmental risk. In 1988, China launched its own climate research programme. 2006 saw the release of China's first National Assessment Report on Climate Change, raising dire warnings over water shortages, food security, and endangered coastal cities. The "airpocalypse" of the early 2010's and the notorious statistics linking air pollution to premature deaths and economic losses of up to 3% of GDP have been acknowledged head on. By the time of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, China was publishing a 900 page Third National Assessment Report on Climate Change, authored by 550+ scientists. Droughts. Heat waves. Flooding. China's government well understands the stakes.
China's people do too. In 2017 nearly 80% of Chinese citizens said they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned by climate change in a public survey. Given a strong focus on STEM education, combined with the lived reality of crippling air pollution, this is perhaps unsurprising.
2. Economic re-structuring is well underway
Led by a decade of double digit economic growth the Chinese economic miracle has raised 800 million people from poverty. Urbanisation rates have boomed. Such a fever of development will likely be unparalleled in all human history. Yet the environmental toll has been heavy, to say the least and there now exists a clear recognition that, "a single minded focus on GDP growth [is] no longer enough to ensure a better way of life for Chinese citizens."
High quality balanced economic growth is now the "new normal." Officials are no longer assessed on economic growth alone, or at all. The discussion on jobs has centred on rapidly expanding the workforce in new and necessary areas of economic activity, such as green construction and buildings, renewables, and a booming EV industry. Whilst certain provincial officials may still be keen on securing the stable jobs that highly polluting coal power have represented, from the early 2010's the Chinese government has taken a strategic tactical decision to re-tool the economy ready for the "ecological civilisation."
3. The stage is set for the "Ecological Civilisation" to go BIG
Re-tooling for the ecological civilisation has been a political decision backed by policy and capital. There has been a domestic "War on Coal" with a coal cap introduced - between 2013 and 2017, coal consumption was reduced by 380 million tons. Investments in the solar and wind industries have cut costs, led innovation, and transformed the global renewables market. A nation wide re-engineering of the electrical grid is slashing renewable energy curtailment rates - China is halfway through a $88 billion plan to deliver a massive ultra-high voltage (UHV) transmission network. Energy efficiency efforts have demonstrated the absolutely crucial role of this "hidden" industry in reducing energy demand and avoiding high cost investments - the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlights that up to 2014, Chinese energy efficiency gains had avoided the need for over $230 billion of investments in new (mostly coal-fired) power plants. Of course, China has also stolen a lead on EV manufacturing with a subsidy system perhaps only topped by Norway. Now discussions are advancing on a complete ban on the manufacture and sale of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles by 2030.
The biggest criticism of China's environmental efforts remains the export of fossil fuels industries abroad, locking countries into an outdated and highly polluting form of development. It would be foolish to deflect away from these criticisms - especially when recent controversial cases have been so visible in the media. Between 2001 and 2016 China participated in the development of of 240 coal-fired power projects in 25 countries. Yet leading figures in China have been laying the ground for a greening of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping's flagship regional economic development initiative. China has put green finance on the agenda at the world stage. In 2016, under China's presidency of the G20, the G20 Green Finance Study Group (GFSC) was established, co-chaired by Ma Jun, Chair of the China's Green Finance Committee, and Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. In September 2017, Ma Jun was appointed UN Special Advisor on Sustainable Finance. The messaging from the very top of the CPC is clear, the BRI must be green. As contradiction abound, the next decade will be critical.
Politicians around the world increasingly talk of the need for a "moon shot", or a new Marshall Plan, to deal with the climate crisis and re-tool the global economy. The Green New Deal has rocketed into the mainstream of democratic politics in the United States. Yet when we look at China, it's arguable they are already halfway there. The estimated cumulative investment of between $4-$8 trillion in the BRI will likely swamp the Marshall Plan (estimated $1.4 trillion), which rebuilt Europe following WWII. When we look at the raft of domestic policies underpinning a colossal economic restructuring at home, China's leaders have pulled back the bow string, ready to trigger delivery of the ecological civilisation, certainly at home and potentially abroad. As Finamore concludes, "there is plenty of room - and need - for all countries to accelerate their efforts, collaborate, and even engage in healthy competition in the battle against climate change."
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