Our bus rolled through the modern, green, and cheerful campus of Tshingua University (described as the Harvard equivalent in China) bright and early Wednesday morning. Our delegation of fifteen students climbed the steps of the Meng Minwei Science and Technology Building and took seats around Professors Yong Luo and Ye Qi to learn about China’s environmental and climate change policy.
I think it’s safe to say that global climate change policy leaves much to be desired. Environmental and energy policy in the United States is a patchwork of success stories interrupted by episodes of mud-slinging and circular debates. It’s not always that we can even agree on the science.
So, given the recent carbon emissions bilateral agreement between the United States and China, we were curious to learn what China was up to. Here are a few themes that stood out to me:
Climate change and agenda setting:
Climate change in China began as a “science issue, not a policy issue.” Academia in China has nudged forward the threats of climate change into the national agenda as early as the 1980s. Patterns of increasing precipitation in the West and South, increasing particulate matters, and decreasing watershed volumes have been noted seriously by China’s policymakers for decades. Policymakers trust scientists. For that reason, it is difficult to find climate skeptics in China.
Climate change and economic development
After the 1992 Rio Convention, sustainable development became woven into the country’s 5-year plans and economic growth priorities. Climate change was viewed as part of this strategy. Specifically, China embarked on a mitigation strategy to decrease its coal consumption. Consequently, its carbon intensity has decreased (carbon emissions per dollar GDP), or inversely, its carbon productivity has increased.
It was interesting to learn how China’s has leveraged its access to cheap land, labor, and raw materials to spur the solar system manufacturing industry, especially following the 2006 Renewable Energy Law. Even in the face of the anti-dumping tariffs for Chinese solar panels in the US and Europe a few years ago, the Chinese government responded by subsidizing Chinese solar developers, encouraging domestic private solar industry participation. This has been key in China’s rural electrification.
China’s Global Role on Climate Change
While China in the past may not have played a leadership role in international climate change agreements, its domestic industry has surged forward with ambitious standards. Especially in light of the fact that it is a very coal-rich country, its goal of achieving 64% wind and solar renewable penetration by 2050 is quite spectacular. In the future, China seeks to increase R&D partnerships, such as CERC, to explore emerging renewables technologies.
The new administration also sees climate change as an opportunity for international leadership. Last year, in 2014, China led the world in renewables investment at $89.5 billion. The country also experienced the first drop in carbon emissions in the past decade. As Professor Ye Qi affirmed to our group, the country is certainly moving towards very significant and dramatic changes.
Sarah, MPP 2015