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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 112b - Friday, 25 March 2011
‘Taking The Lead’ to Reduce GHG Emissions: The transformative impact of the rise of China
By Mukul Sanwal1
Full Article

A rethinking is taking place of the science, policy, society nexus to bridge the gap between the scientific understanding of environmental degradation and government action to reverse it. Hypothetical scenarios bear no relationship to the real options confronting policy makers now, because existing models focus on specific policy areas and sectors such as energy and transport, and they cannot capture fully the impact of resource use on ecosystems, enterprises, the economy and society as a whole, or the interdependence of policy measures. Recent analysis establishes that market mechanisms will not lead to the required technological transformation for a sustainability transition; a combination of technology development, market mechanisms and government policies will be needed to influence the actions of millions of energy consumers, from large factories to individual households. Setting the price signal and emissions cap at the right level has proven difficult, and the effectiveness of the European Trading Scheme in promoting low-emissions investment is questionable. Japan has concluded that an emissions trading scheme will hamper investments in key industries and that forcing companies to accept allocated emission caps, as in Europe, would not work in Japan. The United States has also deferred a discussion on a ‘cap and trade’ system, and emissions reduction commitments. The European Union, which has been at the forefront in meeting the challenge of climate change, is unlikely to achieve its target of reducing energy consumption by 20 per cent by 2020. In industrialized countries, when policies focused on economic growth have confronted policies focused on emission reduction, it is economic growth that wins out every time.

The developed countries have not modified longer term trends, or their lifestyles, as they had agreed to do under Article 4.2(a) of the Climate Convention. In the period 1990-2005 developed countries emissions rose by 1.35 Gt (United States emissions grew by 18 percent), and what is worse show an increasing trend, and overall emissions remained limited only because of the reductions of 1.76 Gt in the Economies in Transition following the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, China’s fundamental shift in growth pathways will make it the first country in the world to decouple economic growth from energy use even while having large numbers of poor. China has begun to take the first steps for an alternate policy framework for sustainable development, and in this manner re-defining the nature and scope of national actions away from a narrow focus on percentage reductions in emissions to transition to a low carbon green economy and society. The focus on activities that generate global change, placing resource conservation, environmental protection and economic development on equal footing, is showing good progress.

The 11th Five-year Plan of China (2006-2010), in which it set a target to reduce energy use per unit of GDP by 20 per cent by 2010 compared to 2005, has been achieved.  China has also pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 compared to 2005, and the Government is likely to include the target in its 12th five-year plan from 2011 to 2015. Further steps to promote the burgeoning clean-tech sector are possible under a US$1.5 trillion plan to boost strategic sectors.

China has more efficient coal fired plants than the United States and is becoming the major world market for such plants, as well as for renewable energy. In 2009, the Chinese Government approved a national target for increasing the use of renewable sources to 15% of energy use, and US$36.4 billion was invested in renewable energy in 2009 (which is much more than the investment in the US). China has in the past five years become the undisputed global leader in renewable energy. It has more than twice as much solar thermal capacity as the rest of the world combined; it is the global leader in solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing; and it has both the world's largest wind energy market and total installed capacity. Renewable energy installed capacity, including hydro electricity, will increase to 47% of total capacity by 2020. China will install 10 million charge stations for electric cars by 2020. China will invest €57 billion in grid infrastructure allocated to ultra high voltage (UHV) transmission lines by 2015, and more than €460 billion in “smart grids” in the next decade.

Green growth has been officially adopted by China to be part of the core strategy for the coming decade. Experiments with ‘low carbon zones’ in 8 cities and 5 provinces, covering over 300 million people, have already been started. China’s forest cover increased 1.6 per cent annually in the period 2000-2010, the largest in the world. China accounts for a third of all output by developing countries, and total factor productivity has consistently shown a rising pattern since 1995, and growth in labour productivity exceeded 8.7 percent in 2012, which was the highest in the world, impacting on global trends in resource consumption. On World Environment Day, June 2009, China issued a nationwide call for a “low carbon lifestyle.”

The transformative impact of the rise of China, now the second largest economy, in decoupling emissions from economic growth, has largely been ignored. A recent comparison of Copenhagen emission pledges concludes that China would contribute over 40% of total abatement by all countries, more than the total abatement by all developed countries combined, and more than 2.5 times the amount of abatement undertaken by the United States and over five times the European Union’s Kyoto commitment, driven by concerns for energy security and industrial policy.

China is now taking responsibility for climate change corresponding to the development level of the country.
1Mukul Sanwal has held senior policy positions in the Government of India, United Nations Environment Programme and in the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat.
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