Blaming China is a popular excuse when it comes to climate change. “Why should I try to reduce my carbon footprint while China is building a new coal power station every week?” is something you’ll no doubt have heard. “China’s not going to stop developing, so what’s the point of Britain trying to do anything?” The convenient upshot of these sorts of statements is, of course, is that we don’t have to do anything about our own emissions. We can carry on in our sustainable lifestyles, and China becomes a figleaf for our immodest use of carbon.
This would be a ethically dubious position at the best of times. Just substitute any other social ill instead of excessive CO2 emissions and you can see how the logic falls down. “The world will still be violent whether or not I am violent myself, so I might as well get robbing” doesn’t fly as a moral argument. What makes it worse is that this position doesn’t match the facts either. China is doing more about climate change than you might think.
China overtook the US this summer and is now the world’s biggest energy consumer. Economic growth is running hot, scarcely dented by the financial crisis, and emissions are rising with the size of the economy. And China had a large part to play in sinking the Copenhagen climate talks. It has been said that every other country tackled climate change and China didn’t, we’d have 2.7 degrees of warming.
But China is not ignoring climate change. Internal targets to reduce carbon emissions per economic unit, a 20% cut between 2006 to 2010. It plans to reduce energy dependence on coal from 70% to 63% by 2015. Progress on renewable energy targets for 2020 has been so good that the target has been tripled. China now expects to generate 20% of its electricity with wind and solar by 2020, the same target as Europe. With $34 billion put towards green energy last year, it is investing considerably more in clean technology than anyone else. Consequently, the next energy revolution is likely to come out of China, with a new generation of solar PV, batteries and electric cars.
Speaking of transport, the current UK government has been using high speed rail proposals to boost its environmental credentials. It’s debatable whether it would actually cut emissions, but if we consider high speed rail to be an environmental measure then China is streaking ahead. The first train only ran in 2008, but by 2012 China’s high speed rail network will be bigger than the rest of the world combined – and their trains are the fastest too.
Finally, last year China announced that it would be creating a domestic carbon trading scheme. This would tackle the emissions from its factories and incentivise cleaner development. The US is nowhere near such an agreement at the national level, let along internationally, and I’m hoping China implements its scheme with the kind of energy we’ve seen on other national projects, and really takes a lead.
There are still problems on the global stage, where China fundamentally disagrees with the approach of the climate talks. It wants to build on Kyoto, with new targets for industrialised countries, while the US and the EU want to start from scratch and include targets for developing countries. China wants to include historic responsibility for climate change, and still has 150 million people to lift out of abject poverty. Nevertheless, Wen Jiabao means what he says when he claims that “China, together with the rest of the world, is willing to make its due contribution in coping with global warming and climate change.”