China: Emerging Global Environmental Leader

As climate change concerns threaten the world, Haley Sadoff reveals how the PRC is stepping up as a leader in environmental policies.

Climate changeis a term many of us are familiar with. But strangely enough, its implications are far beyond us, seeing as the populations that will be most dramatically affected belong to future generations. With no World Government – not that we should get one! – nation state governments are the only contemporary entities we have with enough authority to push societies and critical actors toward the direction of a habitable planet for future generations.

While strong leadership positions in the environmental domain traditionally belonged to the U.S. and the E.U., recent initiatives by the government in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) have outshone previous climate action. Vast expansion of renewable energy sources, multiple trailblazing innovations, and ambitious goals set by the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) have all secured the PRC as an emerging leader in global environmental policies. These initiatives have also gained the country international credibility and thus leverage, too, in negotiating future climate plans.

Installing half the worlds new wind infrastructure in 2015, the PRC is now home to the worlds largest installed capacity of both wind and solar energy. The nation reported to have reduced carbon intensity by a full 20% between 2010 and 2015, in spite of coal producing three quarters of the countrys electricity. While this figure inspired an author from The Economist to call the PRC a modelfor cleaning up the planet, it should be noted that gaps in data collection have more recently called into question the PRCs decarbonizing progress thus far. Information Handling Services (IHS) Energy predicts PRC coal demand has yet to peak, and will in 2026. Nevertheless, low-carbon technologies are a priority President Xi Jinping has outlined in this Five Year Plan to advance goals of fostering an ecological civilization (“生态文明”).

The PRC aims to expand its carbon emissions trading program throughout the country between 2017 and 2020. Seven pilot markets currently exist at city or provincial levels. These cap-and-trade systems provide companies a limit (or cap) to the amount they can pollute, while also incentivizing them not to, by allowing for buying and selling of unused pollution permits. Once this program diffuses, the PRC will host the largest nationwide carbon emissions trading market in the world.

While at first there may be a slight decline in GDP, the PRC will be rewarded for climate efforts by having established dominance as an innovator, manufacturer, and exporter of low-carbon technologies and effectively seizing climate change as its next phase of prosperity. Assistant dean of Peking Universitys HSBC Business School estimates tens of billions of yuan worth of growth in the environmental protection sector.

Specific goals in this Five Year Plan include decreasing fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in Northern Chinas largest urbanized region, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (京津冀), by 25% this year. Goals also include improving the urban drinking water supply so that 93% is drinkable by 2020, and decontaminating a remarkable 90% of the countrys polluted farmland and industrial site soils by 2020. Unfortunately the PRC is less inclined to allow for international transparency than are other global powers, which reminds us these goals may or may not only be ambiguously achieved. But with the dedicated efforts of climate professionals like Li Junfeng, encouraging mass participation from the general public, scientists, entrepreneurs, and politicians alike, the future does look hopeful.

One of the more trailblazing initiatives the PRC has undertaken is one that few, if any, other governments have even touched upon.

As documentaries like Cowspiracy come out exposing the inescapable link between animal agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions, few governments address this problem. But the PRCs Health Ministry and National Center on Climate Change have teamed up to reform nutritional guidelines to recommend a decrease in meat consumption. Not only will following their suggestions benefit citizensoverall health and wellbeing and alleviate some unnecessary nonhuman animal suffering, but will also manage to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tons by 2030.

Furthermore, the PRCs climate initiatives have potential to encourage other emerging economies to follow its lead in valuing ecologically sustainable development. Following this template of development combining economic growth and environmental stewardship could save nations future economic burdens of transition costs.

Since few countries match the PRCs global environmental impact, it is marvelous that the government has explicitly stated its position of environmental responsibility and leadership. And from what can be seen from contemporary PRC policy initiatives, the government most often ultimately succeeds in achieving its goals. Thus, 加油, PRC! Mother Nature and future humanity thank you.

This article was written by Haley SadoffR. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: BBC

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