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China: Climate wrecker or climate leader?

China: Climate wrecker or climate leader?

Lisa Williams is author of the new Lowy Institute Analysis, China's Climate Change Policies: Actors and Drivers. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Australian Government.

As the world prepares to fight for (or against) a global climate change deal at the 2015 talks in Paris, China is quietly prosecuting its own kind of environmental crusade.

At the infamous Copenhagen climate change meeting in 2009, China was accused of 'wrecking' the talks, humiliating other world leaders and blocking any useful agreement. Contrast this with China's domestic record on greenhouse gas emissions:

If China is so reticent in international negotiations, why is it taking such a proactive attitude domestically? There are three significant domestic motivations for China's actions.

First, energy supply in China has always been a problem, since strong economic growth has fueled increasing energy demand. In an attempt to relax the link between growth and energy demand, the Chinese Government has long had a goal to reduce energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP). To diversify the energy supply base, the Government has supported renewable and nuclear energy development since at least the early 2000s. And since energy makes up about 80% of China's emissions, energy sector reforms have had a significant (but difficult to quantify) impact on China's emissions profile.

Second, China's extreme air pollution problems are adding a sense of urgency to the need to decouple economic growth from dirty sources of energy. [fold]

The majority of the densely populated eastern seaboard regularly experiences dangerous smog, which has a depressing array of public health, social and economic impacts. In the last three years, the public displeasure has been heard by China's leaders, who know the smog problem is one that could eventually destabilise the 'harmony' they have tried so hard to protect.

Third, the smog problem has combined with long term economic concerns to create headaches for the leadership. On the one hand, economic growth has formed the basis of the Party's legitimacy, and China's leaders have recognised the need for economic reforms to rescue a slowing economy. But at the same time, China's leaders know they cannot follow the emission-intensive development path of much of the developed world.

China's policy makers are increasingly merging their economic restructuring goals with environmental and energy issues into a new vision for China's future: the so-called 'ecological civilisation'. Nowhere is the connection more obvious than in the 12th Five Year Plan's 'strategic industries', of which three out of seven are new energies or environmental industries. China aims to increase the strategic industries' share of GDP from about 3% in 2009 to 15% by 2020.

It would be remiss not to mention the challenges the Chinese Government faces in actually implementing its environmental and economic goals: reticence of powerful vested interests, legal and administrative hurdles, and generally low capacity on environmental governance, to name a few. Still, on the whole China's domestic concerns are leading it to a 'green' economy at a much faster rate than international pressure could ever hope to achieve.

Whatever happens in the next round of international climate change talks, China seems to be in the low carbon race for the long haul.

Photo by Flickr user Lei Han.

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