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Paris climate summit 2015

How China has gone from climate villain to hero in just six years

Li Shuo says since the last climate conference, in Copenhagen in 2009, there has been a remarkable turnaround in the Chinese leadership’s attitude to climate change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 5:30pm

It’s an ironic turn of events. On Monday at 11pm, Beijing issued its first ever “red alert” – a warning for all to stay indoors, strap on their masks and protect themselves from the deadly air. The city was essentially under “shutdown” – schools closed, with construction and other industries on pause.

Meanwhile, world leaders are in Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference, trying to reach a global agreement and curb problems just like this. And just who is the world expecting to take the lead? China.

In 2009, during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, China was characterised as the “villain”. Ask anyone whether the world’s second-largest economy would ever lead the fight against global warming and it would have seemed unfathomable. “We’re a developing nation,” they would argue, offsetting any responsibility to cooperate. Amid tit-for-tat squabbling with the United States, China refused to sign any binding deals. An ambitious global reduction target and crucial figures providing a framework for a drop in emissions were also watered down in the last hours of the talks, at China’s behest. Instead of a breakthrough, what the world witnessed was a breakdown of multilateralism.

But six years later, China is back and embarking on a journey to climate leadership. If Paris is a game, then China is here to play – fairly this time. President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) new administration offered a clean slate. At the annual National People’s Congress in 2013, Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said he would tackle the pollution crisis with “an iron fist, firm resolution and tough measures”. The media called it a “war on pollution”.

It’s hard to believe, but what we’re seeing now is an entirely new administration with an entirely different outlook on climate change

Internationally, China is also proving it’s not afraid to lay out its intentions. China was one of the first big emerging countries to submit their post-2020 climate commitments, known as the intended nationally determined contributions, in the lead-up to the Paris conference. This happened in June, three months after the EU and the US, but notably before Brazil and South Africa in September, and India in October. The importance of this timing, in the UN card game where everyone plays with an eye on what’s already on the table, should not be underestimated.

Culturally, public awareness has improved. “PM2.5”, the amount of fine particulate matter in the air, is now in the Chinese vernacular; documentaries about China’s stifling air pollution such as Under the Dome go viral before the censors get to them; and when it all gets too much, Chinese netizens do what they do best and make fun of the situation they’re in.

It’s hard to believe, but what we’re seeing now is an entirely new administration with an entirely different outlook on climate change.

So what about that “red alert”? In a move that was long overdue, and possibly even strategically (or unfortunately) in line with the Paris conference, it demonstrates a government that has changed attitude – putting people’s health first (albeit temporarily) and seemingly listening to demands from the public to take action. This comes after failing to implement the alert last week when the “airpocalypse” covered an area of northern China the size of Spain.

IN PICTURES: Beijing’s big bad air days: angry residents fume over hazardous smog

But old habits die hard and China’s climate “makeover” is far from complete. While it holds ambitious climate targets, it still has its own interests in mind, with trouble toeing the line between GDP growth and the environment.

In the midst of a shift away from a carbon-intensive economy, coal use, the biggest culprit for China’s air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, dropped by 2.9 per cent in 2014. The coal market has remained bearish and is set for another major decline this year, with more investment going towards renewables – an industry that six years ago was almost non-existent, now becoming one of the world’s largest. In a cabinet announcement coinciding with the Paris meeting, China pledged to improve coal power plant efficiency, which will cut coal consumption by 180 million tonnes by 2020; and in a recent report by Nature Climate Change, global carbon emissions are predicted to stabilise this year.

But China is yet to commit to a nationwide coal cap, an important measure to maintain and accelerate the decline of coal. Despite pledging to limit use, a recent Greenpeace East Asia investigation found 155 new coal power plants were approved this year, adding to cases of asthma and chronic bronchitis and potentially increasing the death toll from air pollution by an estimated 6,100 people every year. Moreover, total expenditure on the 155 projects could reach an estimated 470 billion yuan (HK$566 billion) – money that could be better spent on further developing renewables.

READ MORE: Beijing under red alert for smog - and it’s going to get worse before it gets better

Significantly, China’s intended nationally determined contribution, alongside the rest of the projected plans that were submitted prior to the talks, are still not enough to keep global warming under the crucial 2-degree Celsius point. The plans are merely a point of departure, not arrival, for China’s long march towards climate action.

But the key lesson here, and one that other countries can learn, is that the climate narrative can change rapidly even in a country as big as China – but there’ll be peaks and troughs, red alerts and other calamities to navigate. While other nations like Australia, Brazil and India – which appears to now be taking on the defensive position China had six years ago – are playing “hardball” in pledging to phase out fossil fuels, China has managed a U-turn in just six years. It has demonstrated that it has evolved into a cooperative world player that is making a concerted effort to face its climate commitments.

Now it seems the rest of the world needs to catch up.

Li Shuo is the senior climate & energy policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia