China smog

Jake Schmidt, International Climate Policy Director, Washington, DC

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t go to China very often. But when she does it generates a lot of attention. After all, Administrator McCarthy and the EPA are important actors in implementing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. They also know quite a bit about how to address local air pollution as they have played a central role in America’s effort to significantly clean the air over the past 40 years. Both of those issues – carbon and air pollution – are front and center in the mind of Chinese officials at this very moment. So as Administrator McCarthy heads to China next week it is important to look at China’s climate actions with clear eyes. The truth is quite simple: China is acting on climate change and it can do more.   

Some may use this trip to rail against U.S. efforts to address carbon pollution. They’ll argue that the U.S. shouldn’t act because China isn’t doing anything to control its air pollution. I’m sure they’ll use the air pollution spikes in China that are making front page news as a prime example. This is an argument that we’ve heard for many, many years. The American public doesn’t seem to buy it as poll after poll shows that the U.S. should act aggressively to curb climate pollution. So even if the American public perceives that China isn’t acting on climate change, they clearly aren’t arguing for putting the brakes on carbon pollution standards that save lives, create jobs, and address climate change. But the premise that “China is doing nothing” to address climate change is wrong. So let’s look at what is happening in China.

China committed internationally to cut its carbon pollution. As a part of the Copenhagen Climate Summit the Chinese committed to cut their carbon pollution intensity by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. They followed up by enshrining that target in domestic law and set interim targets through 2015, with specific targets per province. Intense action is happening throughout the country to meet these targets.

China has become a global leader on clean energy deployment. Last year China was the leading investor in renewable energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The country invested over $66 billion in renewable energy in 2012. And while the totals for this year aren’t final, it is clear that the pace of clean energy deployment in China continues to surge with recent data showing that China doubled its pace of adding renewable energy capacity in the first 10 months. As a response to their air pollution challenge they have significantly increased their renewable goals in recent months. We expect even more renewable energy action to be unveiled in the coming months.

Air pollution has quickly risen to the top of China’s political agenda. This year China has experienced some of the worst air pollution in modern memory, with levels significantly above “healthy levels”.  It has been so severe that it became the number one cause for social unrest, is leading to over a million premature deaths a year, and has caused billions of dollars in environmental damages. And just this week the air pollution has spiked to record levels in parts of China, leading authorities in Shanghai to urge residents to stay indoors and factories to either cut or halt production. For a sense of how bad it is in real-time a variety of tools are now available to Chinese citizens to track the air pollution in their city and across the country (see this one map for an example).

To address this challenge the Chinese government has started to take more serious steps to address air pollution, as my colleague outlined, in their new Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Action Plan. This plan includes some measures which will have very important implications for climate change. These include:

  • Prohibiting approval of new coal-fired power plants in three key regions in China – Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei, Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta. And these regions are to achieve a decrease in their total coal consumption. This is a region that is home to over 250 million people, cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and major industrial hubs.
  • Committing to increase non-fossil fuel sources of energy (wind, solar) from 9.1% in 2012 to 13% by 2017.
  • Cutting iron and steel making capacity by 15 million tons in 2015. Since iron and steel are major sources of China’s energy use, coal consumption, and carbon pollution this will have important climate change benefits.

Curbing total coal consumption has gone from being a nice aspiration to a potential reality. The underlying challenge remains that China consumes too much coal overall, and much more needs to be done to reduce coal consumption to a level compatible with China’s and the world’s long-term sustainable development. Although scaling up alternatives to coal may seem a formidable task, we believe China can develop the policies and technologies needed to cap and then cut its coal consumption in the next decade (as my colleague points out with a five-part strategy). We are working with government researchers, academics, NGOs and others to develop an effective and enforceable coal cap policy that will address the severe pollution and health impacts from coal while providing cleaner energy sources for China’s economy. With air pollution skyrocketing to the top of the charts, the China’s State Council – the cabinet – has begun to look more seriously at addressing the total coal consumption including support capping total coal consumption.

Clearly China can and must do more to address its carbon and air pollution. Only time will tell whether they follow through and sustain these dynamics but there are emerging promising signs that even more action is coming from China. Administrator McCarthy’s agenda seems aptly targeted at helping China advance climate and air pollution action. We’ve outlined three key actions that the U.S. and China can advance together that would make an important contribution to efforts to address climate change.

So as you hear people saying that China isn’t acting on climate change, it is important to look at the facts on the ground. They are taking serious action that will reduce climate change. They can and must do more. And as the U.S., China, and the world go into the next round of international climate negotiations they clearly have their work cut out for them.

Photo Credit: China and the Environment/shutterstock