China is entering a new era of climate change mitigation and environmental protection

Asian woman looking on the landscape.

Professor Yufeng Yang from the Energy Research Institute (ERI) of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of China, joined the Grantham Institute as a Research Fellow in June 2017. For the next few months, he will be working here on global energy governance and energy storage, in close collaboration with Neil Hirst, Senior Policy Fellow for Energy and Mitigation. In this blog, he considers the environmental situation in China, and the dawn of a new clean, green era.

After 35 years of rapid development and growth, China is still facing serious environmental challenges. In some areas, pollution levels are dangerously high, and ecosystems are deteriorating as a result.

A bulletin released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2016 revealed that, of 338 cities surveyed, only 84 reached national air quality standards. Similarly, 61% of surface water monitored fell into the most highly polluted category –  meaning the quality is so poor it cannot be used for any purpose. The bulletin also revealed that 10.9% of 34,450 species of plants studied, and 21.4% of 4,357 species of vertebrate studied, were categorised as threatened.

These levels of pollution are very worrying. China has a rich biodiversity – and it needs protection from further environmental damage before it is too late. Similarly, China is particularly vulnerable to global warming and climate change, and the extreme weather events that could result. In fact, from 1951 to 2016, the average temperature in China has risen significantly, and 2016 was the third hottest year in China since 1951. 2016 also saw 46 severe downpours and storms, and disastrous flooding in 26 provinces.

A new clean and green era

Of course, it is impossible to solve problems that have accumulated over several decades in two or three years. To effectively tackle pollution and global warming, China must undergo a profound national transition. Fortunately, that transition is already underway.

In recent years, environmental protection and climate change mitigation has become a priority in China. For one, since 2013 the Ministry of Environmental Protection has implemented tougher regulations to help protect the environment – measures that include heavy penalties for the most polluting sectors, such as the steel industry and coal-fired power generation. Similarly, there are now environmental regulations for any new developments – considering the impact on climate change and regional pollution is a pre-requisite for local developments.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping put forward his vision for an ‘Energy Revolution’ as part of the government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. A key part of that vision was “controlling unreasonable energy consumption”. Since then, reducing coal consumption has become a cornerstone of Chinese energy policy, and the total energy consumption across China has decreased.

Significantly, China now regards clean energy technology as a positive engine of development, rather than an economic burden. At the climate summit in Paris in 2015,  “Mission Innovation” was announced, a multilateral agreement to accelerate the pace of clean energy innovation and revolutionise energy systems over the next two decades and beyond. As part of this drive, China pledged to double investment in clean energy research and development over five years, reaching 50 billion RMB (roughly 7.6 billion dollars) by 2020. In fact, earlier this year, Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlighted in a keynote speech that, as a share of GDP, China already spends more than any other nation on the research and development of clean energy and electricity.

A global player in creating a low-carbon future

Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was first signed in 1992, China has become increasingly involved in international efforts to mitigate climate change. Most significantly, in 2015, China’s commitment was key to the success of the Paris Agreement and, since the administration of United States President Donald Trump announced its intention to withdraw from the Agreement, the support of China has helped to cement global climate action among other nations.

More recently still, in the communique of the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier this year, China joined other world leaders in affirming collective commitment to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, pledging “increased innovation on sustainable, clean energies and energy efficiency, and work towards low greenhouse-gas emission energy systems”. In addition, in 2015, China became the first association country of the IEA – another indicator of the country’s growing role in global energy governance, and its commitment to clean, sustainable development. You can read more on China’s contribution to world leadership on climate and energy policy here.

All this shows that, in terms of technological progress, global collaboration and sustainable development, China is entering a new era.  We are moving towards a more inclusive, collaborative and balanced strategy to mitigate climate change, develop clean energy and protect the environment.

In the past, collaborating with the Grantham Institute has led to important dialogues about China’s role in global energy governance. Now, as a Grantham Research Fellow, I am looking forward to working together again and paving the way for closer collaboration with China as it enters this new phase of clean development.

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