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Balancing Environment and Economy in China

Takafumi Terui

Jul. 17, 2015

China is the world's top emitter of carbon dioxide. It’s one legacy of the country’s rapid economic expansion, and leaders have pledged to drastically reduce emissions. However, some analysts wonder whether the quest for continued growth will overshadow the commitment to the global environment.

Chinese officials announced their greenhouse gas reduction target during Premier Li Keqiang’s recent visit to France, which will host the COP21 UN climate conference in November. Premier Li said China must cut carbon emissions from the 2005 level by 60 to 65 percent by 2030.

However, the figure is measured per unit of GDP. That means the country’s emissions could actually increase as its economy grows. Premier Li said China’s overall emissions will continue to rise until 2030, but at a slower rate than before. He said they should then begin to decline.

The country’s CO2 output more than tripled between 1990 and 2012. That’s compared to a global output increase of 50 percent during the same period. China now accounts for a quarter of all global emissions, relying heavily on coal burning for generating electricity and other purposes.

Introducing renewable energy will be a key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Solar panels have started popping up on roofs, including at a solar power company located in a historic part of Beijing and set up in 2010 through a state-owned company. In five years, it’s launched projects in almost 50 locations across the country. The work is subsidized by the Chinese government, which has a policy of promoting solar.

Tsinghua University Professor He Jiankun studies climate change and serves as an advisor to the central government. He says China needs to step up efforts to introduce renewable energy sources. “We’d need to generate 1-billion kilowatts of electricity from renewables. That’s equivalent to all power produced in the US,” he explains. “China’s goal for cutting emissions by 2030 is far more aggressive than targets announced by the US or EU.”

But Shoji Onogi of the Japan-China Environment Service Center doubts that efforts by the central government will be enough. He thinks local governments may have a different agenda, saying “growth is the top priority in the mid-western region, an area that’s economically lagging behind. It’s difficult to realize CO2 reductions in those parts of the country.”

Chinese authorities will need to strike a delicate balance between maintaining domestic growth and meeting global responsibilities.

Takafumi Terui joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu from Beijing.

Shibuya: What do you think is behind China’s announcement of these CO2 reduction targets?

Terui: The announcement coincided with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to France. Some observers say he wanted to take a prominent stance on global warming at the time most likely to get noticed at home and abroad. They say China wanted to emphasize its growth needs as a developing nation, while also showing a position of leadership in the COP21 discussions.

Beppu: Efforts to achieve the reduction goal will almost certainly slow economic growth. Why did China’s leaders move ahead despite this?

Terui: The plan also has positive aspects for the government. Some experts say the reductions could help Chinese officials achieve other goals. Shoji Onogi at the Japan-China Environment Service Center said “new realities can create new opportunities.”

Shibuya: What does he mean by “new opportunities”?

Terui: The new opportunities include new ways of doing business, bringing structural reforms to China’s industries, and making the country more energy efficient. And if the consumption of fossil fuels is reduced, that will help curb air pollution, which is one of the most serious problems in China right now. Chinese officials naturally see a challenge in cutting emissions, but it is a challenge with the potential for huge returns. They’re carefully moving forward while closely monitoring domestic and international priorities.