China and Climate Change: Responsible Action? (ARI)

China and Climate Change: Responsible Action? (ARI)


In early June China unveiled its National Plan for Climate Change, a document which has generated some controversy and which has led certain sectors of opinion to question whether or not Beijing’s position in the fight against global warming is as responsible as it should be.


This analysis argues, first, that China’s recently-unveiled climate change plan is a hugely important initiative for the world as a whole. Secondly, it sums up the plan’s highlights. Thirdly, it sets forth the main criticisms which have been levelled at it and the arguments which have been used in its defence. Finally, the conclusions present an overall valuation of China’s policies concerning global warming.


On 4 June, on the eve of the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm (Germany) and just a few days after the launch of President Bush’s new initiative on global warming, China unveiled its National Plan for Climate Change.

China’s policies on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, global warming and climate change are, it is well known, hugely important. China is currently the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the US. In 2004, US GHG emissions totalled some 7.2 billion metric tonnes and those of China some 5.6 billion, of which more than 5 billion were carbon dioxide (CO2). However, in April, Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that China could overtake the US as the main greenhouse gas emitter as early as the end of 2007, and not in 2009 as had hitherto been expected. He also predicted that in 2004-30, growth in absolute terms in China’s emissions (some 5.6 billion tonnes) could double that of all OECD countries put together (2.8 billion tonnes). The US Energy Information Administration projects that China’s contribution to world-wide CO2 emissions will increase from 17.5% in 2004 to 26.2% in 2030, while the OECD’s contribution will be reduced from 50% to 38.8%.

In its National Plan for Climate Change, drawn up by a mandate of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Chinese government ‘sets forth the objectives, guiding principles, main areas for action and policies and measures with which to confront climate change for a period up to 2010’, as the plan’s preamble states. This is the first plan on climate change drawn up by a developing country.

The Importance of China’s Plan

To begin with, the plan is the first important official document which clearly recognises the serious environmental problems and challenges facing China, at least in relation to air and atmospheric pollution, namely: a predicted increase in temperatures of between 1.3 and 2.1 degrees centigrade in 2000-20; more frequent droughts, storms and floods, increased desertification; the reduction of glaciers in Tibet and Tianshan; a rising sea level; poorer harvests (agricultural production could decrease by 10% around 2030), etc. Furthermore, although the plan does not mention these aspects, it is well known that, according to a number of studies, already 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, and five of the 10 largest, are in China, and at least 400,000 people die every year in China as a result of respiratory infections related to pollution. The huge air pollution and the sizeable GHG emissions are due to a number of factors: strong dependence on coal, low efficiency and energy conservation levels, increasing demand for energy due to rapid urban development and fast-track improvements in living standards, soaring motor vehicle numbers, etc.

Furthermore, the plan insists that China has renounced development based on the large-scale consumption of energy and other natural resources, and that the country will follow a path of ‘low energy consumption, low emissions, high efficiency and high productivity’. In other words, according to the plan, China, despite being a developing country, renounces ‘blind’ industrialisation that is insensitive to environmental deterioration.

Thirdly, the plan clearly sets forth the position of a major developing country in regard to the priorities of a poor economy and the various responsibilities in combating global warming. According to the plan, China puts economic development and the reduction of poverty before the struggle against climate change, since it considers that very stringent measures to cut GHG would curb its economic potential. It also argues that the main responsibility in reducing emissions lies with developed countries which, as well as being richer, have generated much higher cumulative emissions and, today, emit more GHG per inhabitant.

The plan considers the well-known statistics of the World Resources Institute (WRI), in its publication World Resources 2005. Cumulative CO2 emissions between 1950 and 2002, due to the use of fossil fuels and cement production, amounted to 780 billion metric tonnes worldwide, of which 600 billion tonnes came from developed countries (212 billion from the US) and 180 billion from developing countries (72 billion from China). In other words, rich nations were responsible for 77% of cumulative emissions between 1950 and 2002, while China contributed scarcely 9% of the total. Furthermore, World Bank statistics indicate that in 2003 per capita CO2 emissions were 19.8 tonnes in the US and 3.2 tonnes in China. The plan indicates that in 2004 China’s per capita emissions were 3.65 tonnes, which is 87% of the world average (4.20 tonnes) and 33% of the OECD average (10.95 tonnes).

Finally, not only does the plan reiterate its commitment to previous undertakings (like increasing energy efficiency and developing alternative energy sources to those based on fossil fuels) but it also proposes GHG emission reduction targets, although they are not binding. Indeed, as the Chairman of the National Committee for Reform and Development, Minister Ma Kai, pointed out when he unveiled the plan, ‘China will not commit to applying any quantifiable emission reduction target, but this does not mean that we will shirk our responsibility in the response to global warming’. Accordingly, the plan envisages that by 2010 CO2 emissions will be 950 million tonnes lower than in 2005.

Highlights of the Plan

The plan’s four linchpins are as follows.

First, China undertakes to increase energy efficiency by 20% between 2005 and 2010. This measure, which was already included in the 11th Five-Year Development Plan (2006-10), is extremely important, since energy efficiency in China is very poor. In the last few years, GDP generated per unit of energy (kilo of oil equivalent), has been around U$4.5 (of 2000 in purchasing power parity) in China, vs more than US$5 in India, US$6 in Germany and France, US$6.5 in Japan, US$7 in Brazil, Spain and the UK, US$8 in Italy and Switzerland, and US$9 in Ireland. According to this measure of efficiency, China is in line with the US, which, as is known, wastes large amounts of energy. An increase in efficiency by one-fifth in five years implies an average year-on-year increase of over 3.7%. The figures for 2006 indicate that in that year China boosted its efficiency by 1.23%, less than one-third of the target.

Secondly, the plan clearly opts for energy diversification. China’s energy base is today highly dependent on coal –which accounts for more than two-thirds of primary energy consumption– and, in general, on fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas account for 93%). The plan envisages fomenting the use of nuclear power and, above all, of renewable energies (hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass), whose share of primary energy consumption will, if the plan’s targets are met, increase from 6% in 2005 to 10% in 2010 and 16% in 2020.

Thirdly, the government plans to promote the use of clean technologies, for which purpose it will foster research, development and the use of techniques such as recycling of methane in coal use, carbon capture, the use of new automotive fuels, etc. However, it is also asking developed countries to take a more active role in transferring these technologies to developing countries.

Lastly, the plan involves a massive reforestation programme and improvements in forestry management, aimed at absorbing a sizeable amount of gross CO2 emissions.

Overall, the planned reduction of 950 million tonnes of CO2 is broken down as follows: 500 million tonnes from the development of hydroelectric power, 200 million tonnes from the use of methane contained in coal seams, 110 million from increased energy efficiency in electric power generation, 60 million from developing wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, 50 million from developing nuclear power and 30 million from the development of biomass power.

Pros and Cons

Some Western governments and environmental groups have criticised China’s plan for not being sensitive enough to the dangers of global warming and for not including ambitious measures to fight climate change.

For instance, one criticism is that China should not give priority to economic development and the reduction of poverty over cutting GHG emissions. The Chinese plan has also been criticised for failing to include binding targets for emission reductions. In this connection, it has been argued that, since the measures under the plan are few and far between, in the best-case scenario there will be a reduction in the pace of growth of GHG emissions, but not in the overall amount of emissions.

Nevertheless, the fact is that a country with per capita income of US$1,740 in 2005 and still-high poverty levels (in 2001, according to the World Bank, 16.6% of the population lived on less than US$1.00) still has major economic and social needs. Despite the rapid growth in the last 25 years, income per capita in China pales in comparison to that of the US (US$43,740) and Spain (US$25,360) and is still far below the world average (US$6,987). Accordingly, China must continue to grow, and it will continue to do so through industrial expansion. As for emission reduction targets, it is true that the plan does not include binding objectives, but it does say that China aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 950 million tonnes in 2010. This is an ambitious objective which implies around a 10% cut with respect to 2005. In short, if the plan is fully implemented, there will indeed be a reduction in overall emissions and not just slower growth. Quite another issue is, of course, whether or not the plan is over-optimistic and whether or not it will be implemented in full.

A second criticism facing the plan is that it is merely a list of measures already in place and that it does not introduce any significant new steps. In this regard, it is true that it takes up the same objectives posted in the 11th Five-Year Plan, released at the end of 2005 and approved in March 2006. These objectives include the 20% increase in energy efficiency and diversification in energy sources, with lower energy dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and increasing nuclear energy and renewables, especially hydroelectric power. While this is true, it is no less true that the plan lists how the energy efficiency and diversification are to be improved and, above all, the specific measures to be implemented to notably reduce CO2 emissions.

A third criticism is that, despite the central government’s intentions, the plan might encounter serious difficulties in its application. Two arguments are typically levelled here: an inadequate institutional structure and the problems faced by the central authorities in imposing their views on local leaders. It is pointed out, for example, that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has 17,000 employees, whereas its Chinese equivalent (the State Environmental Protection Administration or SEPA) has a workforce of less than 1,000. It is added that local (provincial and municipal) authorities will be much keener to attain the highest possible rates of economic growth than to apply a still-nascent environmental legislation. An example of this resistance is the explosive growth in the country’s GDP in the last three years, despite the restrictive measures which the central government has tried to implement.

Lastly, many environmental groups have praised the Chinese government for the plan, but have indicated that the effort should not be limited to drafting a plan, but should be ongoing, through the strict application of the measures contained in it and through its continuity over the next few years, since the current plan’s timeline runs to 2010.


China is already a major GHG emitter. It is even expected to overtake the US this year. Furthermore, a number of studies indicate that, if it does not implement radical measures, its CO2 emissions could easily double by 2030. This is why China must get involved in fighting climate change, since otherwise the efforts of all the wealthy countries that are committed to this cause would cease to make sense. Accordingly, the National Plan for Climate Change must be welcomed, since it is a clear sign that China will act responsibly in this matter. In fact, it seems safe to say that China ‘promises to make significant achievements in the control of greenhouse gas emissions’. A second assertion is not incompatible with this statement: China’s share in global responsibility for the worsening of the greenhouse effect is low. The criteria for determining the responsibility of each country should not be total emissions in one year, nor the emissions projected for within one or two decades, but cumulative emissions, per capita emissions and level of development.

The plan has been criticised for not being ambitious enough in the fight against global warming. In particular, some sectors of opinion have suggested that China should have set binding objectives for cutting GHG emissions and, most especially, CO2 emissions. However, it is worth recalling that the Kyoto Protocol does not oblige developing countries to reduce their emissions and that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change clearly stipulates that there are ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and respective capabilities, so that developed countries must spearhead the fight against climate change and its effects. Accordingly, especially in the light of the poor results in this regard at the G8 Summit, the Chinese government’s position is perfectly reasonable when it says that wealthy countries are the main culprits of global warming and that it would be unfair to impose obligatory caps on the emissions of developing countries. Nevertheless, the plan sets the target of reducing CO2 emissions by 950 million tonnes between 2005 and 2010. Consequently, many of the criticisms levelled at China from the US do not seem very legitimate, particularly in view of the fact that Washington has not even ratified the Kyoto Protocol and that at the G8 Summit it refused to accept binding reductions on its own GHG emissions.

Finally, the main problem facing China’s plan is that it may be very hard to implement. To overcome these difficulties, the government will have to strengthen the institutional and legal structure in place, substantially underpinning the State Environmental Protection Administration and fostering all necessary legal changes, as well as forcing local authorities, which are traditionally reluctant to follow Beijing’s instructions, to apply all the measures under the plan. We should all hope that Beijing manages to implement the plan successfully, since whatever can be achieved in the fight against climate change in a country like China, which will soon be the world’s leading CO2 emitter, will be crucial for the planet as a whole.