China: The Time is Now

The political will to improve the air quality has no doubt spurred a faster move away from coal-use than if GHG mitigation was the only motivation.

Iselin Stensdal, researcher FNI

The fact that the Paris Agreement became effective on 4 November 2016, less than a year after it was negotiated, was in part due to China. The agreement required at least 55 member states’ signatures representing at least 55 per cent of the world’s GHG emissions, and China’s share is 29 per cent of the global emissions.

For China, ratifying the Paris Agreement is important both symbolically as a signal to the world of its commitment to fight climate change, and practically as China upholds the UNFCCC as the most important international arena to coordinate climate actions. China ratified the agreement at the same time as the US in a ceremony with the then-US President Obama and the then-UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, during the G20 meeting in China September 2016.

In the run-up to the Paris-meeting China repeatedly expressed commitment to contribute to achieving the deal which became the Paris Agreement. China pledged the following actions by 2030 (nationally determined contributions, NDC):

• To peak the country’s carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 or earlier;

• To lower the carbon intensity by 60- 65 per cent from the 2005 level by 2030;

• To increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix to around 20 per cent by 2030.

Achieving these goals required hard work domestically. Chinese politics run in five-year cycles with five-year plans, and the 13th plan-period for 2016-2020 includes targets for 2020 on carbon and energy intensities reductions.  There is also a special five-year plan for energy saving and emissions reductions. In these, each province has been delegated individual targets. New to the plans is that each province also has a target for how much energy-use is allowed to increase and a national cap on coal-use. The plan now also includes targets and energy-efficiency standards for industries, the transportation sector and buildings. This year also marks the start of the national carbon market in China. In other words, the Chinese government seems to take climate change seriously, and it is currently making serious efforts in transforming the country inthe direction of a low-carbon circular-economy. 

For China, this is not just a climate change issue, however. One of the key reasons why implementing the pledged NDCs is prioritized by the government, is the high level of air pollution in parts of China. For the past few years, air quality index (AQI) numbers have been warningly high, especially during the winter months. An estimated one million people died of air pollution consequences in 2012. Air pollution is not just harming people’s health, but also the economy. On highly polluted days schools are closed, and poor visibility is impeding air traffic. The political will to improve the air quality has no doubt spurred a faster move away from coal-use than if GHG mitigation was the only motivation. In China, reducing CO2 emissions is therefore not just imperative for climate change, it’s about improving the wellbeing and living-conditions of its citizens.

Nevertheless, coal is and will in the foreseeable future be the main source of energy. The challenge is to sustain economic growth and reduce poverty while changing development-direction to a more environmentally sustainable one.