I first arrived in Beijing in 1984. The winter was bitterly cold. We routinely wore three pairs of long johns under our jeans, tops and jumpers, then added a bulky overcoat to go outdoors. What meagre heating we had was on for only four months of the year, even though Beijing hovered below freezing for almost six. It was also dark. One of my students cheerfully informed me it was "Save electricity Tuesday", which was always followed by "Save electricity Friday". These were rolling blackouts, when electricity was switched off across the neighbourhood for the entire day - even in factories, which meant, twice a week, no one worked.

Despite the lack of warmth, light and transport, Beijing was horribly polluted, especially in winter. Buses belched black smoke. When I rode my bicycle through city streets I'd often find chunks of coal in my hair, coughed up by the boilers of the surrounding houses. It was a full year before I knew that the Western Hills should be visible from right outside the Beijing Normal University, where I was employed as a teacher.

Fast-forward to today, and Beijing is a changed city. People's lives have been radically transformed. The Western Hills are now visible at least some of the time. Beijingers live in modern apartments with all mod cons. This lifestyle has come at the cost of a huge rise in energy consumption, most of it generated by coal-fired power stations. Not only is China now the largest overall energy consumer in the world, it has surged ahead to become the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. But, with the crucial UN climate talks having just concluded in Paris, it's worth exploring a different side of the story.

Peer behind the curtain and you get a more nuanced picture than the usual stats suggest. Quietly, over the past decade, China has turned its factories around, with a view to cleaning up the skies. The country is no eco-saint, but it has recognised the enormous benefits of using fuel more efficiently. After the massive growth of the past 15 years, its emissions are starting to slow. It's still early days, but China's coal use has already peaked, and a greenhouse gas peak may not be far behind.

No one - not even China - expected its emissions to shoot up quite as fast as they did. When, in 2007, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency suggested that the country had become the world's top emitter, the news came as a surprise to all. It was several years earlier than anticipated - so much so that the figure was disputed.

The International Energy Agency confirmed the trend in 2008. In 2010, China became the world's largest energy consumer, about five years earlier than expected. And in 2014, the Global Carbon Project reported that the country's emissions per capita exceeded those of the European Union. The figure is an average. Germany's per capita emissions, for instance, are still higher than China's; those of other EU nations, such as Britain and France, are now lower. This rapid rise in emissions - compounded by China's huge population, which amps up any stats about it - is why the country is often described rather simplistically as the world's largest polluter.

How to control emissions was at the heart of the UN climate talks. There are two main ways of doing this: you can cut the amount of fossil fuels you burn and you can stop deforestation. China is, in fact, a major reforester. Forest cover has grown from 8.6 per cent in 1949 to more than 20 per cent today. And while there are debates about how much carbon each new acre of trees captures, and concerns about the biodiversity and health of China's new forests, increased tree cover has undoubtedly soaked up a great deal of carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere.

Most of that carbon comes from coal - the dirtiest of fossil fuels - but the country has also made a huge effort to boost other sources of power. Figures from the Global Wind Energy Council show that China now has more installed wind power than any other country, and each year adds more than everyone else. It is also second in installed solar capacity.

The country gets nearly a quarter of its electricity from hydropower, and that share will continue to grow for another five to 10 years, until prime locations are all taken up. Hydropower is criticised for its environmental cost, but it is worth noting that the dam-building we are seeing in China today is following the same path as it did in Europe, the United States and Canada in the last century.

Solar, wind and hydro - plus a small but growing portion of nuclear power - are paving the way for a future that relies less on coal. In 2014 the black stuff accounted for 65 per cent of China's energy use, down from 70 per cent in 2011. While the trend is encouraging, the figures show that so far, alternative fuels have only had a small impact. The real way China is controlling its emissions is less photogenic than a solar array, but much more potent.

Like many developing nations, 20th-century China was far from energy-efficient. What little heating and electricity we had in our spartan 1980s apartments came from inefficient coal boilers. Those used in power stations were actually dangerous. They were known to blow up, killing workers, if the pressure was raised to boost efficiency. The government responded by buying and developing new, safer, more efficient technology - a good start, but the breakneck pace at which China began transforming itself in the 2000s meant that these initial efforts paled into insignificance compared with the sheer quantity of energy being used. In 2006, the government renewed its efforts by declaring "energy efficiency and pollution reduction" a national priority and bringing in programmes to target industry.

Researchers in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's China Energy Group have shown that real improvements came primarily from two major programmes launched in the 2006-2010 five-year plan that had almost equal importance. The Thousand Enterprise Programme took China's top 1,000 companies and forced them to completely rethink their energy use. Companies were told to appoint staff to monitor energy efficiency and upgrade, redesign and replace industrial kit and software - all with the aim of becoming more energy-savvy, cutting the amount of power they used without denting productivity.

The second programme was more drastic. Thousands of small and inefficient industrial units were simply told to close down. In most cases, companies shut old, dirty installations and shifted operations to newer ones. Remember that China's economy was booming at the time. For the most part, workers either shifted within the same company or looked for opportunities in the exploding economy.

Both programmes targeted steel, cement, power, paper and other energy-hungry industries. They were so successful that they were extended in the next five-year plan. The Thousand Enterprise Programme became the Ten Thousand Enterprise Programme. Smaller and more inefficient plants continued to shut up shop.

The efforts have borne fruit. In the first five years, China cut energy intensity - a measure of how much energy is used to generate $1 of gross domestic product - by 19.1 per cent, missing its ambitious 20 per cent goal by a hair's breadth. This was a victory in my eyes, both because the figure was much higher than outsiders predicted and because it showed China would be honest about its achievements even when it didn't quite meet its goals. The goal of the current five-year plan is to reduce intensity by another 16 per cent, and all indications are that this will be met. The government has also set a carbon intensity target to cut the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP by 17 per cent. This was a goal promised at the Copenhagen climate talks, in 2009.

It takes a long time for energy policies to produce major results, but China is now clearly committed to a lower carbon future. In the past 12 months, it has said that its emissions will peak by 2030 or earlier if possible. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this peak for the future of the planet, especially when we're talking about the world's biggest emitter. Even though developing nations still need room to expand - meaning their emissions will continue to rise in the short term - temperatures simply cannot be kept in check if global emissions keep on growing year after year.

While Beijing never explicitly says it is responding to the emissions data, it does describe itself as being under increasing pressure. The pressure is not just to cut emissions in response to the international community, but also to clean up its air and water to improve public and environmental health. China is still in many ways a developing country, but it has also clearly recognised its responsibility to be a world leader.

And here's the surprising aspect of the Chinese growth model. The country's emissions rose faster than anyone expected, but the reverse may also come to pass. Emissions are still growing, but they are rising a little less with each passing year, which suggests China is in fact rapidly approaching its peak. Coal consumption actually dropped for the first time ever in 2014, according to China's National Coal Association. Some say the drop is due to an economic downturn, but a number of economists argue that the slowdown in China's traditional industrial sector has been matched by a rise in the services industry - a shift towards low-carbon sectors that would be good news both for the economy and, crucially, for global emissions.

Certainly on the ground things appear quite prosperous. Where, in the 1980s, you had virtually no transport between even the major city hubs, today you have access to fantastic subway systems, high-speed rail that connects virtually the entire country, city and inter-city bus systems, a comprehensive air network, more than 200 million electric bicycles and more than 150 million private cars. High-speed rail is gradually replacing air travel on shorter routes - a huge carbon saving.

The general consensus among climate change analysts is that China is now approaching its emissions peak surprisingly fast because it is moving away from an economy that is primarily driven by industry. Jiang Kejun, one of China's foremost energy modellers at the government-run Energy Research Institute, says the country can peak as early as 2022. There is a healthy debate on the subject, but the consensus is that a pre-2030 emissions peak is quite possible.

Recently, in a remarkable joint presidential statement with the US, China also committed to setting emissions targets for various sectors, and to getting a cap and trade market - where polluters may trade the right to emit - off the ground by 2017.

The design process is mainly about how to allocate carbon credits to industry. Zhang Xiliang, of Tsinghua University, in Beijing, who is part of the design team, says credits are being given only to factories that operate above a benchmark level of efficiency. Others will need to purchase them, which should help close down even more top polluters, for whom the cost will be too much to bear.

Whether carbon markets will be the best solution for China is an open question. Both Jiang and Yang Fuqiang, of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a US NGO, believe it will ultimately implement a carbon tax. Beijing is good at collecting taxes, and does not have to deal with the same political opposition to taxation as the US and Europe. Which solution it opts for is a technicality. The bottom line is that it has a number of tools to control emissions and an economy that is changing in ways that help with more cuts.

As China has become wealthier, and daily life more like that in the West, especially for the half of the population who live in cities, the country has also forged more connections with the rest of the world. Thirty years ago, Chinese policy was highly insular. Today its scholars are major players in drafting the assessments that inform climate talks such as those in Paris, and its negotiators are playing an increasingly active role, too.

Pollution and especially protecting the environment are still enormous challenges for China, but on climate change the nation appears to have turned a corner.

Deborah Seligsohn is a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, in the US, and former science counsellor at the US embassy in Beijing.

New Scientist


Japan invisible in Paris

As people across the world witnessed the birth of a landmark international agreement on combating global warming, Japan remained almost invisible throughout the two weeks of high-stakes negotiations at the UN climate talks in the Paris suburbs. Japan's failure to display a meaningful role in advancing the talks as the world's fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide hints at a general lack of interest among policymakers in Tokyo in tackling climate change in earnest.

Questions remain over whether Japan can keep a passive stance on an issue that has come to command so much global attention and prompted strong calls for immediate action, including in Japan, where dozens of coal-fired power plants are being planned in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, which led to the shutdown of almost all commercial reactors over safety concerns.

Appearing before other national leaders who descended on the French capital for the climate talks' opening late last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged them to come to an agreement "to show the solidarity of the international community".

Abe's call for an agreement, however, did not quite translate into strong public diplomacy. A press briefing by a Japanese official on the opening day, held to explain Abe's speech, turned out to be the only news conference for the international media held by the Japanese delegation during the 13-day conference.

The Paris talks put the spotlight on a group of developed and developing countries called a "high-ambition coalition" that pushed for an ambitious agreement. The alliance, which included the European Union and low-lying island countries such as the Marshall Islands, gained prominence day by day, with such major powers as the United States and Brazil joining. As the group's membership expanded to more than 100 nations, Japan waited until the final day of the conference to join.

"We weren't asked to join," a Japanese delegate said.

Japan also did not win any "Fossil of the Day" award this year for the first time since the award was created in 1999, at the Bonn Climate Change Conference. It was given daily during UN climate talks by a coalition of more than 900 environmental groups worldwide, to shame a recipient into contributing to negotiations in a more meaningful way. Kimiko Hirata, international director of Kyoto-based environmental group Kiko Network, said because the award is often given to a country to encourage it to make contributions, the fact that Japan did not receive any speaks volumes about the lack of influence Japan wielded over the talks.

Japanese officials say the country was working hard behind the scenes to secure an agreement that reflects its positions and interests as much as possible. Japanese negotiators did succeed in pushing back on the proposed entry-into-force provision of the agreement by winning back language they thought was important to them.

Japan wants to make sure that major greenhouse gas emitters such as China are bound by the agreement, so Japanese officials were upset when an early draft dropped a reference to the percentage of global emissions accounted for by participating countries as a condition for the accord's entry into force. After Environment Minister Tamayo Marukawa publicly lodged a protest during a ministerial-level meeting, the reference to emissions was restored in the next draft and was retained in the accord. The Paris Agreement will enter into force after at least 55 nations accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified it.

It is widely understood that Japan feared if the entry into force concerned only the countries that have ratified the accord, Japan could be placed at a disadvantage in case it ratified it but a major emitter such as China or the US did not.

The latest accord is the first universal agreement on reining in global warming to avert more serious typhoons, droughts, floods and rising seas, and seeks to steer the world away from its reliance on oil, gas and coal. A provision in the agreement obliging countries to take domestic measures to achieve their emissions-cut targets is expected to pile pressure on Japan to work harder to meet its own target of slashing emissions from 2013 levels by 26 per cent by 2030.

"The Paris Agreement will force Japan to fundamentally change its reliance on fossil fuels like coal for power. Japan can't take measures against global warming in line with the agreement without converting its energy policy," says Mie Asaoka, lawyer and head of the Kiko Network, who took part in previous UN climate talks as a nongovernmental member of the Japanese delegation. Daisuke Yamamoto, AP


Climate talks a 'fraud'?

United States Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected criticism from prominent climate scientist James Hansen that the Paris climate talks were a "fraud" and insisted the resulting deal will spur a global transition from fossil fuels towards renewable energy.

Considered the father of global awareness of climate change, Hansen, a former Nasa scientist, told The Guardian newspaper as the talks were concluding that "It's just bulls**t for them to say, 'We'll have a [two-degree-Celsius] warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.' It's just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned."

According to Hansen, the international jamboree will have been pointless unless greenhouse gas emissions are taxed across the board. He argues that only this will force down emissions quickly enough to avoid the worst ravages of climate change.

Nevertheless, the Paris accord, the culmination of 20 years of often fraught climate talks, has been hailed as a success by world leaders after 195 countries agreed to curb greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to hold global temperatures to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Asked about Hansen's comments by the ABC news channel, Kerry, who led US negotiators in Paris, said, "Look, I have great respect for Jim Hansen and I was there in 1988, when he first warned everybody climate change was happening. But with all due respect to him, I understand the criticisms of the agreement because it doesn't have a mandatory scheme and it doesn't have a compliance enforcement mechanism. That's true.

"But we have 186 countries, for the first time in history, all submitting independent plans that they have laid down, which are real, for reducing emissions. And what it does, in my judgment, more than anything else, there is a uniform standard of transparency. And therefore, we will know what everybody is doing.

"The result will be a very clear signal to the marketplace of the world that people are moving into low carbon, no carbon, alternative renewable energy. And I think it's going to create millions of jobs, enormous new investment in R&D [research and development], and that R&D is going to produce the solutions, not government." Oliver Milman, The Guardian