China: An emerging green superpower?



When one thinks of nations that epitomise progressive and sustainable climate policies, China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, is not typically front of mind. China is seen by the West as having a mediocre reputation on environmental issues and was perceived to be uncooperative at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks.

In recent years, however, China has accelerated its commitments and recently launched several policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the introduction of its national carbon market. As pollution, energy security and international reputation become more important to the CCP, change is accelerating. Regardless of China’s motivations, China’s climate leadership is now on display for the world to see, and the West would be wise to observe and take note.

At the recent 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his commitment to green development, which was first mentioned in the CCP’s constitution at the 18th congress in 2012.

Since then, significant changes have been made to the country’s energy mix, with hydro, wind, solar and nuclear energy now accounting for 20% of the country’s total energy consumption, up from 14.5% in 2012. China has developed a renewable energy industry that was virtually non-existent a decade ago. In 2016 alone, 35 GW of new solar generation was added, which is almost equivalent to Germany’s entire solar capacity.

The consequences of China’s clean energy build-up are already clear. More affluent nations that once used China as a defence for their own inaction are now watching it climb to become an emerging global climate leader.

While President Trump pledges to put US coal miners back to work, China is progressing in the reverse direction. According to the Chinese National Energy Administration, China intends to invest 2.5 trillion yuan (US$366 billion) in renewable energy technologies by 2020. However, it’s not all rosy. Notwithstanding promises to reduce domestic coal use, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are looking to build coal projects abroad, such as in BRI countries.

The CCP appears to be driven by a range of considerations, including a desire to reduce pollution, economic concerns and energy security. The public uproar in the last decade against air pollution has given necessity to the need for a cleaner growth path. Furthermore, the overriding priority for the government continues to be economic growth as a source of legitimacy for the administration and an opportunity to raise standards of living. While environmental policies can clash with economic development, it has become increasingly evident that China’s leadership wants to move away from an economy driven by investment and focused on manufacturing, towards one focused on domestic consumption. This lends itself to high-tech industries and renewables development, and indicates that China’s green growth trajectory is unlikely to slow anytime soon.

Regardless of this important progress, China’s carbon dioxide emissions still overshadow the contributions of all other nations, with approximately a quarter of the world’s total. Therefore, for foreign governments and international organisations like the UN, assisting and supporting China on its green growth trajectory is paramount. While the central government remains influential, China has a series of actors, such as SOE and sector exports, which influence climate change decision-makers and the National Development and Reform Commission (the primary government institution responsible for climate change governance).

Although it appeared an unlikely reality at the 2009 climate talks, China is indeed on track to transform itself from the world’s climate change villain to an emerging green superpower. Climate change is an opportunity for China to step-up to the world and it has grasped the opportunity with open hands. China has become a green energy colossus.

Tom Perfrement is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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