It took a long time for China to wake up to climate change. But in the coming years the country will become a world leader on tackling the causes of a warming planet. To understand why, consider how quickly China has come around on the issue.
In the relatively recent past, many Chinese believed that climate change was a lie made up by developed countries to contain the growth of developing ones, especially China. Even after scientists accepted the correlation between global warming and carbon emissions, many in the government clung to the idea that countries have a “common but differentiated responsibility”—with an emphasis on “differentiated”. Whenever an official was able to resist foreign pressure in international discussions, he was considered a hero. Since industrialisation, the argument ran, developed countries have accumulated a larger carbon footprint.
First-hand experience of climate change has altered the Chinese people’s attitude. A turning-point came in 2008. That year, on the eve of China’s most important holiday, the Spring Festival, rare freezing temperatures and heavy rain nearly paralysed the entire south of the country. Thanks to the wide reach of the internet, every extreme-weather event since, including Typhoon Hato in 2017, has attracted massive attention. The smog that arrives predictably each winter has made air pollution one of the most widely discussed topics among the Chinese. The people have moved from ignorance to fighting for the right to information, to taking the initiative, to demanding government action.
During recent trade summits, the Chinese government temporarily shut down many industrial businesses in order to clear the air and save its face. But that does nothing to save the planet. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. It is now working to put its own house in order.
Climate change and air pollution are related, but not identical, issues. Most air pollution is produced by the same sources that emit carbon dioxide: heating, power generation, industrial activity and cars. That means controlling pollution can also mean cutting emissions. This can be seen as the uniquely Chinese path to tackling climate change in 2018 and beyond.
In 2009 China announced plans to cut its carbon emissions by 40-45% relative to GDP growth by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. Then, in 2014, it said it wanted carbon-emission levels to peak around 2030, and would even try to move this date forward if possible. This marked a striking shift, from emphasising lowering the concentration of emissions to trying to control total levels. Under China’s current political system, the central government breaks down carbon-emission targets for different levels of government. Now, checks on targets are becoming more stringent. The party may urge more advanced regions to meet goals ahead of schedule.
Even after Donald Trump said he would pull America out of the Paris agreement on climate change, the attitude of China’s government and people has not regressed. Rather, many have called upon the country to take on more responsibility for the sake of all humanity.
Warming on the idea
What measures will it take? Recent efforts to cut overcapacity are the starting-point. Overcapacity is primarily concentrated in high-emission industries such as steel and coal. The government wants to control the capacity of these sectors. Industrial businesses will feel the force of strict environmental and carbon-emissions regulations. This inextricably links progress to economic reforms and efforts to improve regional industrial structures. Ultimately, this is a matter of governance.
China’s economic development has reached a stage in which manufacturing is giving way to service industries. Goods like steel, cement and glass have already reached their peak output, or will soon do so. Solutions to climate change are compatible with China’s transition.
In the short term, the country will face economic and social costs from its actions, including slower growth and rising unemployment. That means the social safety-net will need to be shored up. Also, China’s emphasis must move from mitigation of climate change to adaptation to it. That involves upgrading infrastructure, changing lifestyles and further raising public consciousness. In the long run, as China’s industries shift from manufacturing to services, social resistance to the economic effects of climate-change action will decrease.
Current achievements are still a long way from meeting the expectations of the people. China’s climate awakening means the country needs to put in a long-term effort to adopt more intensive and effective measures to cope with global warming. Luckily, Chinese people have by now realised the true meaning of the idea, “We only have one Earth.”
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