Author: ZhongXiang Zhang, Tianjin University
Pollution fears in Chinese cities and global threat of climate change combine to push eco issues to the forefront.
Following three decades of rapid economic growth, China faces a variety of daunting environmental challenges.
No one would disagree that the dense smog and haze that frequently hit Beijing and other major cities are among these, and Chinese leaders are fully aware of the problem.
The country has made ecological goals an equal priority with policies on the economic, political, cultural and social fronts, but more important is working toward fully realizing an ecological civilization in all aspects of economic development.
The recognition of the seriousness of environmental pollution and the push for green are not completely new. In December 1999, then-premier Zhu Rongji commented to Beijing municipal officials that his life would be five years shorter as a result of working in Beijing.
And former leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao insisted that encouraging economic growth at the expense of the environment had to end.
As an important first step toward cleaning up the country’s development act, Hu and Wen, who were president and premier from 2002 to 2012, incorporated energy-saving and environmental goals into China’s national five-year economic blueprint for the first time.
This change was a double-edged sword. It distinguished their vision for China’s development from that of their predecessors but also tested their leadership. Overall, China had limited success on the environmental front during their tenure.
Given that environmental compliance costs are even higher now and will likely continue to rise as emission targets become increasingly stringent on the one hand and dodging environmental regulations is widespread on the other, one cannot help but question why outcomes this time might be different from the previous ones.
Maintaining social harmony and stability has been the top priority in China. Environmental issues, particularly pollution disputes and sudden, unexpected environmental incidents, have been one of the leading causes of social unrest in Chinese society.
Dense smog has become a major issue. Mounting public complaints about smog, coupled with rising standards of living, have convinced the public that more anti-pollution measures are necessary.
In the new phase of moderate to high-speed growth under the “new normal”, the economic structure will undergo comprehensive and fundamental changes aimed at higher efficiency and lower production and social costs.
There is increasing scientific evidence confirming man-made climate change and its resulting negative effects. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most comprehensive assessment of the science relating to climate change to date, reported with 95 percent certainty that the major cause of global warming was increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activity.
Continued greenhouse gas emissions will cause further warming and have the potential to seriously damage the natural environment and affect the global economy, making it the most pressing long-term global threat to future prosperity and security.
Given these factors, the need for improved environmental quality is now of unprecedented importance. In March 2014, Premier Li Keqiang told 3,000 members of China’s legislature that the country will “declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty” after nearly every Chinese city monitored for pollution failed to meet national standards in 2013.
If China’s accomplishment and worldwide recognition in eradicating poverty is considered any kind of predictor, it adds credibility to the fight against pollution.
In line with acknowledgment at the highest levels that the country is facing an environmental crisis, China is attempting to cap coal consumption to peak before 2020 and be cut in absolute terms in severely polluted regions. It is taking unprecedented steps to keep energy consumption and carbon emissions under control in key energy-consuming industries and cities in the context of government decentralization and unprecedented urbanization.
And it is eliminating outdated energy producers and industrial plants, tackling the perennial problem of overcapacity and promoting the widespread use of clean and green technology.
Increasingly, large areas like the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta act collectively rather than on their own to address the many cross-border environmental problems. These collective and coordinated efforts significantly increase China’s effectiveness in combating pollution.
Having relied mostly on administrative measures to date, China now realizes that those can be effective but are often not efficient. The country is increasingly harnessing market forces to reduce energy consumption, cut carbon and other conventional pollutants and genuinely transform into a low-carbon, green economy.
It is moving away from energy pricing entirely set by the government in the centrally planned economy and toward a more market-oriented energy pricing mechanism, taxing by extracted volume, experimenting with seven pilot carbon-trading projects and preparing for the transition to a nationwide carbon-trading plan by 2017.
It is also moving to implement a system of chargeable use of resources and ecological compensation.
Of course, implementation holds the key to actually achieving desired outcomes. There are encouraging signs that the Chinese government is strengthening existing efforts and is taking additional steps toward implementing its ambitious environmental goals.
While enacting policies and measures that target saving energy and cutting pollution is a signal of the goodwill and determination of China’s leaders, strict implementation and coordination of these policies and measures will be a decisive factor in determining whether China will clean up its development act, meet its carbon intensity target in 2020, honor its commitments to cap carbon emissions around 2030 (or earlier if possible) and increase the share of nonfossil fuels in its energy mix to 20 percent by 2030.
While the aforementioned argues that China is motivated and determined to take action, it does not necessarily suggest sole reliance on domestic action without action at the international level. In fact, to effectively control carbon emissions inherent in China’s trade, action needs to be taken internationally as well as domestically.
China is, like every other country, concerned about a potential loss of competitiveness in taking unilateral climate abatement measures. At the international level, cutting China’s carbon emissions related to exports creates an impetus for strengthening international technological cooperation and coordination on climate change.
With China still dependent on coal to meet the bulk of its energy needs, carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) has been identified as a crucial element in the country’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China and the European Union have cooperated in this area within the framework of the Near Zero Emissions Coal initiative — developing CCUS demonstration projects in China by 2020 based on the EU’s advanced, near-zero emissions coal technology.
Cutting China’s carbon emissions in exports would also create an impetus for establishing a global carbon price framework. The absence of a global carbon price has impeded internalizing carbon costs.
Given that the internalization of such costs would send a clear signal to producers and consumers, China and the international community need to strengthen coordination in this regard, ensuring that the costs of carbon emissions embedded in traded goods are reflected in the price for consuming countries as well as goods for domestic use. This is a feasible means of passing on carbon cost to consumers without consumption-based accounting of carbon emissions.
Based on these facts and observations, I am cautiously optimistic that China can accomplish a great deal on the environmental front. It is in China’s interest to not only sustain its economic growth, but to ensure its standing in the world community as a positive force in addressing environmental problems.
If President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang can make China green, history will indeed record their contribution as equal to Mao Zedong’s achieving China’s independence and Deng Xiaoping’s creation of a more prosperous country.
Zhongxiang Zhang is a professor at Tianjin University’s College of Management and Economics. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
(China Daily Asia Weekly 10/28/2016 page 10)