SHANGHAI -- After being accused of undermining moves to set binding emissions targets at the last climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009, China comes to Paris with a new status as a key player in the fight against climate change. On the one hand that’s for the simple reason that China’s economy and wealth has continued to grow -- and so have its environmental problems: it’s now not only the world’s second largest economy, but also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
But growing pollution problems at home have also contributed to public pressure on the Chinese government to take environmental issues seriously. Earlier this year a film about air pollution by a former Chinese state TV host attracted more than 100 million viewers online, fueling the debate. And this time, with President Xi Jinping himself attending the opening of the conference, Chinese officials have said they will “go all out to get a binding deal” for global action to cut carbon emissions. On the eve of the conference, President Xi met his French counterpart Francois Hollande, who has said China’s support is vital to any climate deal. Chinese media said Xi was “expected to galvanize global actions” for an accord aimed at keeping climate change increment below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century.
Experts say China has taken greater action in recent years after decades of breakneck growth that often left little room for environmental concerns. Chinese officials stress that the country was the first developing nation to set specific climate change targets; it has pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier. Last year it announced a “war on pollution,” according to state media, including an ambitious plan to clean up the country’s polluted water resources. Official media also say China invested $89 billion in clean energy last year. And Beijing recently pledged $3.1 billion to a U.N. fund to help other developing nations tackle climate change. Domestically, it has drawn up a new environmental law, and brought in a high-profile new minister, Chen Jining, former head of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, with an increase in environmental fines seen this year.
However differences over how to tackle the issue remain: Beijing insists that what it calls a “balanced and fair agreement” on carbon emissions would continue to emphasize the different responsibilities of developed and developing nations, and China is expected to call for greater technological and capital transfer from the former to the latter. China has argued that developed countries have not done enough to implement their commitments to help less wealthy countries, and President Xi said recently that it was their responsibility to lead the way on climate change.
Ambivalence in China was highlighted on Monday by an editorial in the official Global Times newspaper, which said that while the Chinese people “have realized the importance of protecting the environment,” when it came to the "better-off asking others to limit their emissions," there was a “moral dilemma.”
“Do they have the right to ask others to keep living a bitter life” for the sake of protecting the earth, it asked. The paper said many doubted whether a binding agreement could be reached and implemented at the Paris talks -- though it expressed hope that a milestone accord could be achieved.
The Global Times also said that cleaning up China’s pollution “won’t be easy,” particularly as China’s large population was still upgrading its standard of living. Environment minister Chen said at the weekend that while China had cut emissions of some pollutants, it still needed to reduce pollution by 30 percent to 50 percent. China has taken some measures to encourage citizens to buy smaller and electric cars, with tax breaks for buyers of such vehicles. It has also sought to reduce its dependency on coal, still by far its biggest source of energy, by investing in solar power and approving a new wave of nuclear power stations, as well as promising cleaner coal technology. And coal use has declined by some 10 percent over the past year.
However local governments around China are nevertheless reported to have approved the construction of more than 150 new coal-fired power stations in the first nine months of this year alone, according to environmental group Greenpeace, assisted by a central government decision to localize authority over environmental impact assessments for such projects. And the question of how much progress is really being made has been highlighted by allegations by environmentalists, reported by influential financial magazine Caixin, that sulfur emissions had been under-reported by as much as half -- and also by the heavy smog that has blanketed the capital Beijing and much of northern China in recent days.
The Chinese government has acknowledged that massive investment, including from the private sector, will be needed if China is to effectively curb pollution. Ma Jun, chief economist at the country’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, said recently that China needed a “green financial system” to encourage such investment, and more action against what he described as “an unreasonable industrial structure, energy structure and transportation.”
However with environmentalists warning that many of the urban areas along China’s coasts would be submerged by a rise in sea-levels if temperatures continue to rise, some in China at least now have a sense of urgency. "China has become one of the world's largest emitters in terms of annual greenhouse gas emissions. It could make a change if we adopt a low-carbon development strategy," said Zou Ji, deputy director of China's National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, according to official reports. “But if we hesitate, we may miss this historic opportunity for transition.”