Climate Change and China, by Walter Fung

Climate Change and China

by Walter Fung

This short article summarises the current policy of China on climate change and the environment and the steps being taken. It draws substantially on Barbara Finamore’s recent book, Will China Save the Planet? (Polity Press, 2018). In 1996, she founded the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China Program, the first clean energy programme to be launched in China by an international non-government organisation. I can recommend this book, packed with positive information together with extensive references and suggestions for further reading.

Contrary to popular Western public belief, China has always had a policy to protect the environment from the earliest days after opening up in 1978. Much has been achieved in limiting the effect on the environment, but China has also had extremely serious pressing problems to overcome: widespread poverty, building up the economy and creating jobs and health care. These issues are vitally important for national stability.

Economists in 2008 estimated that China needed growth of 8% to prevent unemployment rising in urban areas. China’s leaders focused on economic growth and poverty alleviation as the top priority, but this was to change in the second decade of the 21st century after significant economic progress had been made and 800 million people had been lifted out of poverty.

China’s early environmental achievements

In January 1999, New Scientist magazine published an article which began, ‘Remember- you read it here first’. The subtitle of the article was ‘Fred Pearce slays the myth of the Chinese carbon dragon’. The article reported that China is one of the few countries in a relatively early stage of industrialisation in which energy demand has grown significantly less than GDP. ‘China has cut its energy consumption per unit of output by 50% since 1980’. Remember this article was written in 1999.


A photograph taken in Xi’an during May 1983. The Chinese writing says, ‘Protect the environment’ (WF)


China’s National Assessment Report on Climate Change in 2006 detailed the threat to coastal cities and other consequences of global warming and in 2007 China published its National Climate Change Programme. This was the first document of its kind by a developing country. It listed what China had done over many years, including the central government order in the summer of 2004 to 24 provinces to slash their power consumption.

A document of 2007 solicited public opinion on a draft law to regulate air conditioning and central heating in public buildings. The law would require room temperature in summer to be no lower than 26 degrees centigrade, and no higher than 20 degrees in winter. These proposed regulations were to reduce energy consumption. The new regulation also promoted the use of renewable energy and proposed to ban the use and import of energy inefficient materials, techniques and facilities.

The Biosani organisation in 2007 issued a publication, Green China 2007-2008’, which detailed sustainable and green projects.

The Three Gorges Dam and other hydro-electric projects form part of the plan for clean energy. This dam generates energy – the equivalent of 18 nuclear power stations as well as providing flood control and vastly improved river navigation facilitating development of the interior and south-western China.

In September 2010, China topped the Ernst Young Renewable Energy Attractiveness Index. In the previous year, one half of all wind power turbines had been set up in China. The UN Environmental Programme reported that more than one third of all global investment in renewable energy was Chinese in 2010.

International agreements

In 2009 at Copenhagen, China would not accept binding international limits on its greenhouse gas emissions because this would restrict economic growth and hence threaten national sovereignty and stability. China’s view was that it had already made a significant contribution.

Before the Copenhagen talks, China had already pledged to increase its proportion of non-fossil fuels i.e. hydropower, nuclear power, wind and solar power, to about 15% of its total energy mix by 2020.  In addition, China’s carbon intensity emissions (defined as emissions per unit of GDP) would be reduced by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. China holds the view that developed and developing countries have common but differential responsibilities. Other developing countries, notably India also hold this view, but this is an issue that the US will not entertain.

Before the Paris agreement in December 2015, President Obama visited Beijing and the climate was discussed. The two countries issued a joint statement; they would work together on environmental issues. The US would reduce GHG (greenhouse gas emissions) by 26-28% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels and China committed to peak its emissions around 2030. At Paris, China reaffirmed its commitment to peak emission by 2025, but added, it would make try to increase the mix of non-fossil energy to 20% by 2030. It would also reduce its carbon intensity by 60-65% below 2005 levels by 2030 and also expand forest cover. Recently President Trump has indicated that the US may pull out of these agreements.

Change of priority

These Climate Change agreements coincided with a change of priority in China’s development. It was decided that the focus on GDP growth was no longer the way forward for China’s citizens; 800 million people had already been lifted out of poverty. Although China’s environmental laws and policies had been strengthened by President Hu Jintao, the new president, Xi Jinping in November 2012, stressed that China’s future prosperity depended on a more balanced economic model that also protected the environment and people’s health, i.e. ‘ecological civilisation’. This formed part of a programme to move away from fossil-fuel driven heavy industry and manufacturing to one based on services, innovation, higher quality goods, clean energy and environmental sustainability.

A lower level of GDP growth, around 6.5%, would become the ‘new normal’; GDP growth would no longer be the most important factor in assessing an official’s performance. In its place, environmental performance would be the primary criterion for promotion decisions.

Focus on pollution control

At the beginning of 2013, the Chinese government began to release hourly air pollution data to the public, for more than 70 Chinese cities. Most failed to meet national pollution standards. The monitoring was later extended to the 338 largest cities. Public awareness and concern soared and at the end of September 2013, the central government pledged 1.7 trillion yuan to clean the air.

Cleaning up pollution had become a top priority and an integral goal of the new economic development model and in November 2013, a National Strategy for Climate Change adaptation was published. This set out guidelines, targets and actions to protect water and soil resources and reduce climate impacts on agriculture. The report also called for steps to prevent and monitor rising sea levels for early warning systems at coastal cities and construction of seawalls and other flood control systems.

Public concern had grown and a survey in 2012 and again in 2017 showed that people understood and accepted that Climate Change was being caused by human activity. They believed that the government should take the lead to combat Climate Change, but citizens were willing to take action on their own and nearly 75% said they would be willing to pay more for climate friendly products.

Clean energy development and Climate Change

The main cause of air pollution and Climate Change is the burning of fossil fuels, the main culprit being coal burning. The development of clean energy and control of emissions had become not only in China’s national interest, but in all other countries’ as well. Xi Jinping has promised to help other developing countries both with technical and financial support and a 20-billion-yuan fund has been established.

Coal-fired power plants still generate a significant amount of electrify but are now subject to stringent requirements to improve efficiency and more energy output per unit of coal burnt. In 2014, ultra-low emissions standards were introduced, requiring them to be as low polluting as natural gas power plants. Those units not able to meet the regulations were to be closed. Those that do meet the standards would pay reduced tariffs.

Beijing has invested billions of yuan to reduce its reliance on coal. All heating and power facilities in the city have been converted from coal to natural gas; the last coal plant closed in March 2017. But the capital remains polluted because of its proximity to Hubei province which has huge glass, cement and aluminium factories.

Tree planting had always been encouraged in New China and by 2009, 18% of China’s land area had forest coverage. This coverage will increase to 23% by the year, 2020. Soldiers have been assigned to tree planting to meet this target.

China is the leading producer of wind turbines and solar energy panels. The price of these items worldwide has been reduced by the economics of scale of production in China. The 12th Five-Year plan (2011-15) designated the production of energy from solar and wind sources as ‘strategic industries’. Targets, timetables and policy measures were implemented together with financial grants and incentives.

As early as 2001, China made the development of new energy vehicles (NEV) a priority in its 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05) and in 2010, NEVs were designated a strategic emerging industry. Accordingly, the government granted $10 billion over 10 years to the leading automotive and battery manufacturers for the development of electric cars. About 140 Chinese companies make 66% of all lithium batteries in the world. The US share is about 10%. As with wind turbines and solar panels, the volume of production in China, has brought down the price of lithium batteries. In March 2018. China launched an EV battery recycling programme.

China also grants subsidies for the purchase of NEVs and they are exempt from purchase tax. In some cases, subsidies total $16,000 per vehicle. Beijing plans to replace all its 69,000 taxis with EVs. Didi Chuxing, the leading ride-hailing service in China plans to spend $150 million on a nationwide charging service and expand its fleet of EVs to one million by 2020.

China is now the leading producer of EVs together with charging facilities. There are now more charging points in Beijing alone than the whole of Germany. In 2017, more than 605,000 passenger NEVs were sold in China, nearly half the world’s total, plus 198,000 commercial NEVs, mainly electric. China is home to 99% of the world’s total of 385,000 electric buses. Every five weeks, China’s cities convert the equivalent of London’s entire bus fleet.  There are plans to ban petrol cars by as early as 2030.

President Xi, in a keynote speech at the Belt and Road (BRI) Forum, on 14 May 2017, stressed that China would uphold the concept of green development: low carbon, recyclability and sustainable lifestyle. China would play its part to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The BRI would be used to accelerate the use of low carbon techniques in the countries involved. A report from the Grantham Research Institute of the LSE, (March 2016) indicates that China, itself, may well attain the goal of peaking its carbon emissions several years ahead of schedule.

Barbara Finamore
Will China Save the Planet?
Polity Press, 2018
ISBN 978-1509532636 (Hardback)
ISBN 978-1509532643 (Paperback)


Walter Fung, November 2019