China can teach the West about tackling climate change

All heat and light: we need action on climate not rhetoric and finger-pointing. Owen Humphreys/PA

China has become a popular target of environmental ire, drawing criticism for its soaring carbon emissions and perceived intransigence during climate negotiations.

Nonetheless, an easy target isn’t always a legitimate one. The charges frequently levelled at China mask the country’s historic, and I would argue instructive, efforts to mitigate climate change.

Consider the tenor adopted by Chinese leaders on the issue, especially compared to the United States, the world’s second largest and by far the highest per-capita polluter. Capitol Hill remains the stage for a kabuki theater of climate denialism and plutocratic (or should it be “pollutocratic”?) dealings with industry. Beijing, for all the alleged sins of its autocracy, has made addressing climate change central to its governance over the coming decade and beyond.

In March of this year, the concept of “ecological civilisation” (sheng tai wen ming), a society that balances economic needs with environmental imperatives, was written into the ruling party constitution. Concurrently, both the recently retired Hu-Wen leadership and the newly inaugurated Xi-Li administration have repeatedly emphasised China’s commitment to low-carbon development.

The key to understanding China’s climate change efforts is the Five-Year Plan, the rather Orwellian-sounding document that serves as a blueprint for public policy. In the current, twelfth, Five-Year Plan, China aims to decrease energy intensity by another 16% and carbon emissions intensity by 17%. The eleventh Five-Year Plan, which covered 2006 to 2010, set out to reduce the economy’s energy intensity by 20% - an ambitious target given the rapid rate of GDP growth and soaring resource demand. The achieved level of 19.1% fell only a sliver short.

In fact, in the previous four instances in which an energy intensity target was set in the Five-Year Plan, they were all met, and sometimes overachieved by a wide margin. There has also been notable progress on other low-carbon fronts. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, China’s forest cover increased from 16.6% to 20.4%, enlarging an important carbon sink. The government plans to increase the country’s forests by another 12.5 million hectares by 2015.

China has also taken the international lead in sustainable power. In recent years, the country has been the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, investing $52 billion in 2011 alone. China is the world’s largest producer of solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. An excursion to the northern province of Inner Mongolia, for instance, is likely to bear witness to landscapes bristling with windmills. As Lord Nicholas Stern, chairman of the UK’s Grantham Institute, has commented, “China is well placed to lead the low-carbon industrial revolution and reap the great benefits it offers beyond the fundamental gains from reducing the risks of climate change.” In doing so, China could also set an important example for other emerging economies.

All this is not to say that China’s climate change efforts have been unalloyed triumphs, or to absolve the government of future responsibility in international negotiations. The environmental problems facing China are among the toughest in the world, and this, without doubt, has generated much of the domestic impetus behind current initiatives. The immense international pressure on China to curtail its emissions has added additional motivation. But criticism must be balanced with a clear-eyed view of China’s achievements, which are especially notable coming from a country whose per-capita GDP still lies somewhere between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

US President Barack Obama’s recent “climate action plan” has signaled his administration’s decision to forgo climate change legislation or any other sweeping federal policies. So at a time when the United States has relinquished the mantle of global environmental leadership, China’s achievements and continuing efforts set a powerful example to be followed by developing and developed countries alike.

Nonetheless, continued cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters and economies remains the crucial pivot for international climate change efforts. The success of Sino-US talks on energy and emissions mitigation this year is a step in the right direction. Indeed, the notable progress between the two countries could serve as a robust platform for the development of other aspects of this important bilateral relationship. Mutual recognition, of course, will be an indispensable element of this process.

In his book Mother Earth and Mankind, celebrated historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that if the Chinese remain mindful of their past and future, “they may do a great service, not only to their own country, but to the whole of mankind at a critical stage in mankind’s enigmatic course.”

In facing the depredations of global climate change, China has already done yeoman’s service. If the international community is to forge ahead with goodwill on this enormous challenge, we should not deny China its justly-earned plaudits.