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China's climate efforts far from sufficient

Maximiliane Koschyk/shsNovember 30, 2015

China is one of the biggest polluters in the world. The Asian economic giant, however, says it is committed to tackling the issue as the UN climate conference kicks off in Paris. But how difficult will that be for China?

Smoke is discharged from chimneys and cooling towers at a coal-fired power plant in Shanghai, China, 2 February 2012
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

China's rise from a developing country to a global superpower in just half a century has mesmerized the world. But the progress has come at a price: The Asian economic giant is now one of the biggest polluters in the world.

China's economic growth is a result of its rapid industrial expansion. In 2011, it overtook the United States as the country with the highest rate of energy consumption. In 2012, more than two-thirds of China's energy was directed to its industrial sector. Chinese authorities argue that they still have to catch up with the West in terms of industrialization; hence, they cannot reduce emissions drastically - at least not now.

But there seems to be a shift in Beijing. Shortly before the start of the UN climate conference in Paris, China announced that it was planning to revise its energy policy. In a rough version of the 13th "Five-Year Plan," which was released in early October, the government presented proposals for clean energy and environmental protection. A detailed version of the document will be released next year.

Workers watch as water is released from the Three Gorges Dam, a gigantic hydropower project on the Yangtze river, in Yichang, central China's Hubei province, after heavy downpours in the upper reaches of the dam caused the highest flood peak of the year (Photo: STR/AFP/GettyImages)
China's Three Gorges Dam is the largest in the countryImage: AFP/Getty Images

The core problem

China's dependence on coal to generate energy is one of the biggest factors behind its environmental pollution. Since the 1980s, the country has been consuming at least half of the coal produced in the world - most of it for industrial use.

Equally high are China's greenhouse gas emissions. According to a study by researchers at Harvard University, China emits as much CO2 as the US and EU combined. CO2 particles emerging from power plants and furnaces damage the environment and accelerate global warming. In addition, the traffic pollution makes Chinese cities like Shanghai, Chongqing and Beijing full of smog. The World Health Organization considers the air pollution in China's megacities extremely hazardous for residents.

Over the past decade, China's coal consumption has grown at an annual rate of up to 10 percent; however, it declined last year by almost 3 percent. In 2015, the government expects a further reduction. According to the experts at the London School of Economics, China's coal consumption will see a drastic decline - but only after 2020.

Renewable energy

It is likely that China will finally move toward renewable energy, and there are already positive signs of this. China is spending a record sum of $89 billion (84 billion euros) on projects dealing with renewable energies.

Hydropower could also be China's source for renewable energy. Almost one-fifth of China's electricity comes from hydropower. The Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province is the largest in the country, but is also one of the most controversial hydroelectric plants in the world. An estimated 1.3 million people were forcibly relocated during its construction. Moreover, the reservoir has been polluted by industrial waste.

With the help of wind power, China can produce even more electricity than what it is generating through nuclear power. The country has built a wind power project - the biggest wind park in the world - in the northern province of Gansu.

China Gesamtinvestitionen im Bekämpfug von Umweltverschmutzung EN

Is China's future 'green'?

Experts at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, however, see China's current economic downturn as a setback to its climate targets.

"The economic downturn means that China will not be able to reduce CO2 emissions," Jost Wübbeke and Björn Conrad write in a study. "It depends on how the future growth will be generated."

At the same time, Wübbke and Conrad believe that China can boost its growth through economic restructuring while keeping CO2 emissions under check. But this cannot happen in the next few years, they say, as China has to do a lot of hard work "to make a significant contribution to preventing dangerous climate change."

The Climate Action Tracker, an international collaboration of several climate institutes, rates China's efforts as "medium." Analysts thus point out that China's proposals for climate protection, which it submitted to the Paris summit, are not sufficient to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celcius (3.6F). They suggest that the country should instead set bigger targets and focus on rebuilding its energy industry as soon as possible.