#40 event report: China’s Low Carbon Dream

December 1st, 2014 Bridge Cafè (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Dr. MAO Ziwei (毛紫薇), Research Analyst to Energy Program, World Resource Institute (WRI)

Discussant: Prof. Paolo Farah, West Virginia University (USA), gLAWcal – Global Law Initiatives for Sustainable Development (UK) & EPSEI Scientific Coordinator EU commission Research Project

China and the USA signed a climate change deal in last Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing showing a great responsibility to the life of the planet that we are living in. As China is experiencing a rapid economic growth expecting to surpass the USA in few decades, the issue of environment and climate change are also equally on the surface. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has an enormous challenge of ensuring the growth and balancing the national economy but also being careful about the environment protection. In this backdrop, China’s low carbon dream is equally important as the ‘China Dream’ for people as well as for policy makers. The rising middle-class of China, which is shifting itself from village to the urban areas, shows concern about the environmental degradation.

While the issue of environment comes to the level of scholars table in China, there are certain questions that casually asked such as: why this issue at this time, why in China and what it has to do with the whole thing that are going in terms of economic development. “I will try to touch upon these questions here this evening,” Mao, a research analyst at WRI said beginning her talk among audience. The process of urbanization in China is higher than in any other countries at this time in the history. This dramatic shift of economy through urbanization has a lot to do with sustainability of the development path of the country, Mao said. The urbanization rate of the world in 1800 was just 3 percent whereas it will be around 70 percent by 2050. This rapid urbanization shows how dramatically the economic architecture of the entire world is changing. This unprecedented rate of urbanization poses both challenges and opportunities for all economies in the world. Highlighting the specific case of China, Mao said that it is yet to see what sorts of economic and environmental challenges China will face in the future due to this situation.

Presenting the figures of CO2 emissions in the planet, Mao mentioned that around 75 percent emission comes from urban areas. “That means the more we get urbanized the more problems and challenges will be there in the world for the mankind,” Mao said. “Decisions that the city dwellers make now will affect the lives of the future generations to a large extent.” The environmental architect that the cities will lead to construct in the world will not be sustainable from the point of view that we are living now. This suggests that we are at the right time to make change and work on let out environment to be completely damaged. “It becomes our responsibility to protect it and keep this safe as it is for the next generation,” she said. According to figures that Mao presented, there will be additional 1.5 billion populations in the urban areas by 2030 in the world. Similarly, the consumption pattern and life style of the city can get locked easily in this trend, which will not be healthy for the long-term environmental protection in the world.

While talking about China, the urban population was just 18 percent in 1978 whereas it has reached to 52.6 percent in 2012 and has been estimated to reach 65 percent by 2030. These sweeping changes have been helping China to grow rapidly but at the same time, this is incredibly unmanageable from the environment perspective. “Air, water and earth all are getting polluted very fast and there is no way going back to stop it. The only way is to slow it down and look for sustainable measures to advance the economy,” Mao said. Along with the economic prosperity and development, China is also one of the major CO2 emitters and vulnerable to climate change. “This brings us to face one of the major challenges of managing energy for the future,” Mao said explaining why and how China should be aware of the climate change effects at this time more seriously than any other nation in the world. She added that the environmental pollution is also one of the most pressing issues. This might be the reason, why, Mao continued, “climate change and its implications have become major topics of discussion within China”. Intellectuals, academia and policy makers including party leaders all are engaged in a debate how to balance the sometime conflicting goals of economic growth and environmental protection. The debate contains China’s future more than anything else at this time.

The above discussion compels us to ask a question: where are we (China) heading? Is it going to be in the club of the USA and Australia in terms of CO2 emission or somewhere a little below than them? Taking this into consideration, the central government has recently announced a new policy of urbanization in China and a finetuned energy consumption pattern. One of the major steps that the central government’s policy accommodates is to work on building low-carbon cities. Explaining the nature of a low carbon city, Mao explains three main pillars: social equity & quality of life, economic prosperity and environmental stewardship. These aspects of a city do work on building the nature of low carbon city. “There is an expectation that the new policy of the central government will help to restructure the energy consumption pattern in China,” Mao said. Along with that, low carbon emission, efficient water producing strategies and several other means of conserving the environment are in place. The good thing all about this in China is that the local government and leaders want to make their town more environment-friendly and want to save it. “However, it is not as easy as it has been perceived,” Mao said. “There are daunting tasks to be taken care of while working on making the local towns more environment-friendly.”

What has China done so far to make it a low carbon emitter and contribute towards building a more environment-friendly country? Mao goes on untangling these questions. “China is taking more and more specific measures to work on reducing the carbon emission,” she said. “In the political front, CPC has made decisions to reduce the carbon emission while working on achieving economic growth at the same time.” However, the targets that have been set by the party are still very difficult to achieve. “It seems very unlikely to achieve the goals that the party has set for this year,” she said while elaborating the issue to the people at the hall.

There are several international standards and domestic pressures to maintain for the party in order to be a responsible force towards attaining prosperity. “China has given the major strategic position to low carbon emission by using three pillars, which are the major areas of CO2 emission. These three pillars are: land, economic activities and buildings. The central government has a detailed plan to work on it,” Mao said. The climate change issue and carbon emission is not only directly connected with the urbanization and industrialization process. Population growth also is a key component. Therefore, the central government in China also gives an emphasis to the demographic changes in the country. There is a proportionate relationship between the population increment and CO2 emission. The sources of energy demand consist of economic activities that have direct relationship with the population growth. Taking instances of energy demand, the major ones are manufacturing industry, building, agriculture and transportation. All these sources of energy demand increase together with the the population. “However, the energy consumption pattern is completely different in the cities than in villages of China,” Mao said. So, the rapid urbanization process and population growth both will trigger the CO2 emission and China might head towards the club of the USA and Australia in the near future.

Commenting on the presentation, Prof Farah said that the climate change is a global problem but it has to do a lot with the local issues of economic development and livelihood. “The major challenges for developing countries is to adopt development policies that do not harm ecological system and still could attain the desired level of economic growth and prosperity,” he said. The major concern of our time is not only helping people to overcome poverty and underdevelopment but also to ensure that our home (earth) will not be damaged in the long run, he opined. Emphasizing the importance of the climate change deal between the USA and China during the last APEC summit in Beijing, prof Farah said that the two countries have shown a great respect to the planet and also to other countries. Considering the emerging challenges of our time, the American government has also shown interest to help other countries to work on the issue of climate change. The Obama administration has clearly said that it would assist European countries to be more independent from Russian oil. “However, this has more to do with international politics than the mere issue of climate change,” said Farah. Raising the issue of shell gas usage for as one of the sources of energy, Prof Farah said that China has a lot of storage of the shell gas. “But the problem is that while using shell gas, it contaminates water sources,” he said. “Lets hope that China will be able to manage this and use shell gas without much affecting water resources.” He suggested that the governments of all countries have to adopt multidisciplinary approach to reduce the implications of climate change. “Sustainable development approach is the need of the day,” he said.

Q & A
Addressing a question about the data quantification of demand of energy and consumption, Mao said that the data is comprehensive. However, she also mentioned that it does not cover the emission of CO2 from the deforestation and losses it causes. 
Responding to the question about recommendation in making Chengdu a low carbon city, Mao said that the there is vast amount of shell gas, which can be used. She added, “While using shell gas there should be careful approach about the usage of water. China is going to be a hot topic from the environmental perspective as well in the future. The issue of carbon trade is also one of the compelling one. Discussing on the laws and regulations about the environmental protection in China, Mao said that there are several laws and regulations regarding environment but the issue is they are hardly implemented here. The future of China relies on how much renewable energy can be used in China for industrial purpose and in urban areas.

Report by: Bhoj Raj Poudel