How China is seeking to lead by example in the fight against global warming

Nicholas Stern says other countries should learn from China's leadership in incorporating decarbonisation into its plans for economic development and growth

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 6:29pm

China has shown further international leadership on climate change and economic development with an important joint declaration with France, and the release of details of its 13th five-year plan.

President Xi Jinping and President Francois Hollande on Monday issued a statement on climate change that has improved the prospects for an international agreement at the crucial United Nations summit that starts in Paris later this month.

As the world's second-biggest economy and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is playing a leading role in the negotiations about the new agreement.

China has pledged that its annual emissions of greenhouse gases will reach a peak no later than 2030, and that it will invest heavily in making the transition to low-carbon economic growth.

READ MORE: China's emissions trading scheme to be a 'game changer' … eventually, experts say

France has signed up to the European Union's collective commitment to reduce its emissions by 2030 to a level that is 40 per cent lower than in 1990.

However, an analysis of the pledges made by more than 150 countries, including China and the EU members, over the past year has revealed that annual emissions of greenhouse gases in 2030 are likely to be about 55 billion tonnes or more of carbon-dioxide-equivalent.

While this is less than "business as usual" emissions of about 65 billion tonnes, it would be far above the target of about 40 billion tonnes that would be consistent with an emissions pathway that offers a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

Countries have recognised that the Paris agreement must include a commitment beyond 2015 to increase the ambition of action against emissions.

So it is extremely important that the joint statement by Xi and Hollande gave strong support to the principle of countries gathering at least every five years to take stock of their collective action on climate change.

This means that Paris will not be a one-off chance to set emissions targets, but instead will initiate a process through which efforts will be ramped up over time.

The joint statement highlighted the importance of countries taking further action before 2020 to cut emissions and improving their resilience against those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided.

Coal and diesel in particular are killing and harming the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the world through local air pollution

Both China and France are planning during this period national low-carbon development strategies to 2050.

This will help to build confidence, particularly among investors and businesses, about the transition to low-carbon growth and development.

While it is important that governments provide detailed signals about the direction of policy over, say, the next five years, many crucial investment decisions, particularly in infrastructure, are based around the prospects for returns over much longer periods. The Paris agreement must leave no doubt about the commitment of countries to decarbonising their economies, not just in power and transport, but across all sectors.

The brutal arithmetic laid out by climate scientists is that global emissions need to reach zero by the second half of this century to have a fair chance of keeping within the warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius.

At the very least, that must mean the end of the age of dirty energy by the middle of the century as fossil fuels are replaced by other sources that are cleaner and more secure.

France has already shown that it is possible to have a power system based on low-carbon nuclear energy.

China's rapid development of renewables is showing what can be accomplished through sustained investment, and there are already signs that its consumption of coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, has peaked.

READ MORE: China’s support on climate change ’essential’, says French President François Hollande

The transition to low-carbon economic development and growth offers China, France and every other country across the world multiple economic benefits in addition to the limiting of climate change risks.

Coal and diesel in particular are killing and harming the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the world through local air pollution.

Outdoor and indoor sources of air pollution were responsible for the deaths of seven million people worldwide in 2012, according to the most recent estimates from the World Health Organisation.

Replacing dirty energy sources with cleaner alternatives will not only improve the quality of life, particularly in cities, but also boost prosperity. This insight and understanding clearly underpins China's plans for economic development between 2016 and 2020.

These further plans for creating the "new normal" for China's economy, which were published this week, promise an energy revolution with fossil fuels replaced by cleaner and safer sources of energy.

It also indicates that energy-intense industries, such as power, steel, chemical and building materials, will be subject to regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions.

And it highlights the enormous task of rehabilitating air, water and land that has been contaminated by past pollution.

Most importantly, the 13th five-year plan embodies the knowledge that environmental responsibility complements sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

Other countries should see that China is seeking to lead by example by incorporating decarbonisation into its plans for economic development and growth.

It offers a compelling demonstration, particularly to other developing countries, that overcoming poverty and raising living standards need not come at the expense of managing the risks of climate change.

To falsely portray economic development as being in competition with action on climate change is to set up an artificial horse race between the two.

China can show that better growth and development can be achieved by building cities that are less congested and more efficient, by using energy sources that create less pollution, and by using land in less destructive ways, preserving our forests, soils and clean water.

China's continued leadership is essential if the world is to rise to the twin challenges of overcoming poverty and managing the risks of climate change.

Its strategic partnerships with EU countries, including France and the UK, as well as with the United States and the other largest emitters will be extremely important, as will its chairmanship of the G20 next year. Through collaboration and cooperation, China can help lead the world towards a more prosperous future.

Nicholas Stern is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, president of the British Academy, and former vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank