China Has a Plan for Climate Change

Two days before China's president travels to the G8 Summit to talk about a warming planet, and over a month behind schedule, the country has released the developing world's first "action plan" (pdf here) on climate change. Though it makes no pledges on emissions restrictions, deflecting some blame towards developed nations, the report reaffirms the country's glacial turn from red to green.

Issued by the National Resource and Development Commission (NRDC), the plan calls for even more official focus on environmental protection, including expanding research and usage of new energy-saving technologies, improvement of agricultural infrastructure, increased reforestation and water resource management and greater public awareness of the issue. But it also insists that rich countries have far higher per capita emissions than China, and should fund clean growth rather than forcing developing countries to accept emission limits. China's "overriding priority at the moment," explained Ma Kai, minister of the NRDC, "is still economic development and poverty eradication." In one sense, it might seem like China is missing the point--that the environment must go hand in hand with economic growth--not suffer from it. But other large and more developed countries are missing the point too. That doesn't make China's attitude right, but it does remind us at least that China is but one piece of the puzzle, especially when countries like the United States, the world's biggest polluter, have depended and continue to rely on China for cheap production of goods. As long as the United States continues its own business as usual, and as long as China is still struggling to bring millions out of poverty, the country should not be forced into binding emissions reductions, the report notes. "But that does not mean we will not assume responsibilities in responding to climate change," Ma Kai said on Monday.

Ma did reject the EU proposal, expected to be debated at the G8 meeting, for the extent of global warming to be limited to a rise of 2C by 2050. But he reiterated plans for a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2010 and a more than doubling of the use of renewable energies by 2020.

As its leaders push development, the United States example has not gone lost on China. "In its course of modernization, China will not tread the traditional path of industrialization, featuring high consumption and high emissions," Ma said. "In fact, we want to blaze a new path to industrialization."

Doing so, ironically, will rely partly on the technologies that countries like the U.S. have to offer to China, and have so far have delivered relatively little (the case of green building in China is one example where U.S. initiative has been sadly slow). "We feel that there's been lots of thunder but little rain, lots of talk but little action," Ma told reporters.

In China, where green technology has not previously been particularly encouraged by Beijing, invention faces a struggle against piracy and the assumption that the environment is a cost of growth, not a potential driver of it. Hot domestic green companies like Suntech are telling China another story, as they eye markets around the world. That's partly why China is supporting a new round of the Kyoto Protocol, which would further establish the market for green tech.

And then there's the biggest potential market of all, right in China's backyard.

But as big a role as China's fast-growing private sector and its consumer classes and NGOs will need to play in greening China, the government has an even bigger role to play in bringing all the efforts together. As Zou Ji, a policy expert at Renmin University who advised on the climate plan, told Reuters, "The position that development shouldn't be sacrificed to climate change measures or emissions quotas is a basic national policy, and it's not going to change. But that doesn't mean there's not room for cooperation or negotiation. It does mean that cooperation has to be on the basis that economic development has to continue."

In today's China, cooperation means governments and corporations, working to find practical and potentially lucrative solutions--to say nothing of stopping the bad corporate environmental behavior that local officials often condone.

On that note, cooperation also resonates with the "harmonious society" that the government is hoping will rise out of the country's corruption and inequality. That will require local governments to work with the citizens they are meant to serve, who are growing increasingly unhappy and restless with the status quo of coal-fired rampant development, polluted farmland, clogged air and streams and a steady diet of health scares.

Though the plan, like the White House's (which China has praised), has been released in time to counter expected criticism at the upcoming G8 meeting, it is the clamor from China's populace that may turn out to be the biggest motivation for China's action on pollution and global warming. While China has said that feeding that populace has kept it from acting more strongly on the warming issue, its leaders are realizing that without action, the country's growth -- or even the country itself -- is in danger.

Elizabeth Economy summarized the threats last month in her excellent dispatch in the Nation:

A recent major official study on climate change predicts up to a 37 percent decline in China's wheat, rice and corn yields in the second half of the century. Precipitation may decline by as much as 30 percent in three of China's seven major river regions: the Huai, Liao and Hai. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which support the richest agricultural regions of the country and derive much of their water from Tibetan glaciers, will initially experience floods and then drought as the glaciers melt.

Moreover, a one-meter rise in sea level will submerge an area the size of Portugal along China's eastern seaboard--home to more than half the country's population and 60 percent of its economic output. Already climate change-related extreme weather is taking its toll: In 2006 such disasters cost China more than $25 billion in damage. Finally, a study by Shanghai-based researcher Wen Jiahong suggests that the lethal H5N1 virus will spread as climate change shifts the habitats and migratory patterns of birds.

As the country steals the title of largest contributor of global greenhouse gases from the United States, China is on the right track. But if it's to stay there, the speed of its move forward will need to get a bit faster. Even glacial.

Tags: China