Andreas Späth

Climate Change: China to the rescue?

2015-06-15 09:48

Andreas Wilson-Späth

China is commonly seen as a major global climate change villain. And rightfully so – the country is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, as well as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, all by considerable margins.

The crucial question is this: can China accomplish what none of the rich and industrialised nations from Europe to Japan and North America managed to do – become rich and industrialised while severing the umbilical cord between economic growth and fossil fuels?

Based on recent developments, the answer is more promising than you might think.

Last year, Chinese investments in cleaner energy initiatives increased from $60bn to $90bn and for the first time in years, carbon emissions from coal dropped as coal consumption fell (a trend that has continued in the first quarter of 2015).

Now a brand new high-level British report suggests that China’s greenhouse gas emissions may reach a peak by 2025 or even before then, which is significantly earlier than the country’s official international commitment of achieving the target by 2030.

The authors believe that “China’s coal use has reached a structural maximum and is likely to plateau over the next five years”, projecting that emissions could “fall rapidly post-peak”. The reason for this, they argue, is that the country’s economic development plan is shifting from a focus on heavy industry to services and domestic consumption with a growing emphasis on raising productivity, reducing social inequalities and improving environmental management.

If China does indeed manage to buck the emissions trend more quickly than expected, this may go some way towards limiting the rise in global atmospheric temperatures to 2oC above pre-industrial levels. (It’s well worth remembering that the safety this much-quoted 2oC figure provides – only a 50% chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change – represents a massive gamble in itself).

The conclusions of the report align with earlier signals of China’s willingness to make positive changes. A surprise deal struck by presidents Xi Jinping and Obama at the end of last year already indicated that China expects to reach its emissions peak by 2030 or earlier.

More potentially good news came from the meeting of the G7 industrial countries in Germany about a week ago, when the USA, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, the UK and Italy agreed to phase out fossil fuels altogether by the end of the century.

There tends to be a lot of promising talk in the lead-up to major international climate change conferences, like the one coming up in Paris in December, but we’ve heard plenty of that without any concrete results for far too long.

Predictably, the G7 leaders stopped short of committing to immediate and binding emission targets.

And therein lies the rub. Too much talk, too little action.

There are no more excuses. The science behind the threat of climate change is unambiguous. We know what needs to be done and we’ve got the technological means to make the transition. Just last week, a new study (following several similar ones) demonstrated that by 2050, the entire USA could be run exclusively on clean, renewable energy. What’s required is the political will from those in power to make the change happen. Let’s hope China and the G7 can deliver on their latest promises.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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