China confronts global warming dilemma
China, the world leader in both economic growth and carbon emissions, faces the dilemma of how to respond to the challenges of global warming while not harming its robust economy.
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As Xie Zhenhua, vice minister of China’s top economic ministry told an audience of top legislators in Beijing in August: “Developed and developing countries are still the two major factions, and the focus of disagreement remains on each country’s proportion of responsibility for emission reduction, funding, and technology transfer.”Skip to next paragraph
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Ambitious green targets
Beijing has so far resisted the notion of internationally binding carbon caps, such as those that may be discussed at Copenhagen. But China does have in place two ambitious green targets, as part of its current Five-Year Plan, which would curb (though not forestall) future growth in carbon emissions.
The first goal is for China to derive at least 15 percent of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020. (The government since has talked of a more informal target of 20 percent.) The second is to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percent over a five-year period.
Experts have been impressed with China’s green ambitions. Julian L. Wong, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., notes that China’s installed wind power has doubled in each of the past four years.
John Doerr, a prominent American venture capitalist, and Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, enthused in a recent Washington Post column: “China’s commitment to developing clean energy technologies and markets is breathtaking.”
Yet even as it pursues alternative energy, China will likely continue to be one of the world’s leading polluters. Carbon-intensive coal, which is abundant and easily mined with cheap labor in China, is expected to supply about 70 percent of the country’s energy over the next 10 years.
China’s energy demand is projected to rise so steeply in coming decades that Beijing is expected to continue to build wind-farms, hydropower stations, and nuclear facilities alongside new coal-fired power plants, all in staggering numbers.
Climate change has only relatively recently emerged as a focus of government and public attention in China. Within China, local environmental problems — such as toxic factory accidents and rising cases of cancers along polluted rivers — frequently make newspaper headlines. Until the 2008 storms, though, climate change seemed a more distant and abstract concern.
As Wen Bo, a prominent environmentalist in Beijing explains: “In China, you must remember there are so many very immediate problems — environmental health, air pollution, and water quality.”
Informal consulting, not lobbying
The government issued its first white paper on the potential impacts of climate change in 2007, concluding that China’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and desertification was among the most severe worldwide. That finding galvanized further attention and also signaled the boundaries of acceptable public discourse — always a concern in a country with tight controls on public expression.