Is China's green transformation underway? The balance of evidence suggests a turnaround is afoot, propelled not by external pressure but by national self-interest.
Beijing on June 30 revealed the long-awaited details of undertakings it will propose at the global summit on climate change scheduled by the United Nations for Paris in December. Some of the commitments were expected -- Chinese President Xi Jinping had outlined key aspects alongside U.S. President Barack Obama last year, in a joint announcement from the world's two biggest national economies -- but it marks a critical moment nonetheless. The three biggest greenhouse gas emitting economies -- the U.S., the European Union and China -- have now revealed what they are prepared to offer under a new global agreement.
New on the table is that China will cut the carbon intensity of its economy -- carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product -- by between 60% and 65% by 2030 from 2005 levels. Its prior commitment, to reduce carbon intensity by between 40% and 45% on a 2005 baseline, only took it up to 2020. The government now aims for its total emissions to peak in 2030, and Premier Li Keqiang indicated that it will "work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date." China also plans to increase nonfossil fuel sources in primary energy consumption from 11.2% now to around 20% by 2030.
This will mean adding an enormous 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of power generation capacity drawn from renewable sources over the next 15 years -- roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. electricity system today. Yet to reach the globally agreed target to limit warming at 2 C above the preindustrial average, China's carbon intensity will need to drop further still -- by around 80% from 2005 levels by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency's analysis.
For many environmentalists, this suggests that a successful U.N. agreement will need mechanisms to ratchet up global ambitions on climate action, including in China, which has also not yet specified an absolute level at which its emissions will peak.
Still, the announcement underscores a shift of historic proportions. Once cast as the villain at climate talks, China does seem to have entered what Xi has termed the "new normal": a transition from energy-intensive industry toward innovation and services as the basis of higher quality and more evenly distributed future growth. This is more than rhetoric. Beijing has pledged to cap coal consumption at 4.2 billion metric tons a year by 2020.
Until recently, that target might have seemed unrealistic, but China's coal consumption fell by 2.9% last year compared with the previous year, and it continued to fall in the first quarter of 2015. For many analysts, this is more than the short-term effect of the country's economic slowdown; it indicates that the coal industry is in terminal decline, underpinned by pollution control policies and sustained support for clean industries.
"China has only ever been on the defensive when it comes to climate change," said Li Shuo, climate analyst for Greenpeace East Asia. The commitment -- known in U.N. terminology as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC -- is "the first step toward a more active role." China has in place ambitious plans to substitute its coal, not only with natural gas (it has pledged at least a 10% share of gas in primary energy consumption by 2020) but also by aggressively scaling up solar and wind energy, investing in clean-technology research and development, and energy efficiency.
China plans to install 200GW of wind-powered generating capacity and 100GW of solar capacity by 2020. The country is now the world's leading investor in renewable energy, and these industries -- and others, such as electric vehicles -- can expect continued support in China's 13th Five Year Plan, from 2016-2020. Authoritative observers, including British economist Nicholas Stern, author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, predict that China will overachieve, allowing its carbon emissions to peak by 2025.
This does not mean the smog has lifted yet -- China's citizens continue to suffer a litany of environmentally-related ills -- or that the road ahead is easy. China's massive urbanization drive, which is to raise the urban proportion of the population from 54% today to 70% by 2030, presents opportunities for further decoupling through smart design. But it also brings the risk that unplanned sprawl could lock the country into a high-carbon development pattern.
The action plan for China's One Belt, One Road initiative, a huge expansion in infrastructure investment in central Asia and beyond, claims "to promote green and low-carbon infrastructure construction." But some fear it will delay domestic restructuring by encouraging energy intensive industries to meet overseas demand. It also links to the state power companies' plans for the country's northwest, where new coal-power bases are being established, connected to China's eastern seaboard via ultrahigh voltage power lines.
China has also had chronic problems with implementation of environmental policy. At local levels of government, contradictory laws, regulatory capture, misaligned political evaluation metrics for officials, and restricted scope for public participation have often thwarted green initiatives. New repressive regulations on foreign nongovernmental organizations might further restrict citizen oversight of environmental enforcement.
Still, high-level indications -- for example, in the top-level document "Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Further Promoting the Development of Ecological Civilization" -- that local government officials will be promoted according to environmentally adjusted benchmarks, rather than simply GDP growth, and that environmental black marks will remain on their work records, are genuinely encouraging.
Most importantly, climate-friendly policies align with the Chinese government's self-interest. From addressing rising public concern about choking smog in cities, to positioning the country as a leading exporter of future, low-carbon infrastructure, climate policies can have major benefits for China.
A recent study by the New Climate Institute, a Berlin-based think tank, found that action ensuring that emissions peak in 2030, combined with an increase in nonfossil energy use to 20%, would prevent around 100,000 premature deaths each year from air pollution, in comparison to the current trajectory. This would create an additional 500,000 "green jobs" in the domestic renewable energy sector.
Regardless of motivation, China's pledge marks a historic step away from fossil fuel dependence toward a low-carbon future, and hopefully a safer climate.
Sam Geall is a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, and executive editor of chinadialogue.net.