Monday, 22 April 2013

China's bold action on climate change

In the Pliocene Epoch (2.3-5.6 million years ago)  average temperatures were 2-3 degrees C above the present, corresponding to a sea level some 25 metres higher than today.

There is an emerging world consensus that even if the rich countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions to zero over the next 20 years the average world temperature will rise to 1.25 deg C above the present average. Since pre-industrial (late 19th century) times the global average has already risen 0.75 deg C and the rate of increase is itself increasing, so that, assuming there is a significant connection between temperature rise and sea level increase, these Pliocene sea levels could be reached this century. Since most cities are near rivers and on coasts this would be disastrous.


So the pressure is on the developing world to drastically cut its emissions while growing economically even if the developed world stops all its greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade or so.


The world’s two biggest economies are the USA and China. The latest figures from the Factbook on my iPhone:


  • USA:   GDP per person  =  $48,300 (2011)

  • China: GDP per person  =  $8,400 (2011)

But China’s population (1.34 billion) is about 4x the USA’s so there is scope for the economic activity to grow enormously should it succeed in reforming its economic structure and liberating the spirit of creativity. Its overall  economic output could reach 20-30 times  the present level. Even setting aside the output of the rest of the world, this amount of activity without green measures could cause potentially catastrophic global warming as the temperature rise accelerated. It would also be a huge drain on planetary resources:  food, water, fossil fuels, metals and minerals.

So it is fortunate for all of us that the 2011 Five Year plan included strict environmental measures. The March 2013 edition of Prospect has an article by Sam Knight, called The thin green line which gives the bold targets which China has set itself:

  • Reduce emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 % by 2020

  • Increase the proportion of renewable energy to 20% of the total energy produced by 2020

  • Spend $800 billion on green investment by 2016

  • Set up pilot schemes for carbon trading in 5 cities

  • Cap coal production in 2015 (1 in 3 new coal-fired plants are now on hold)

Already China has the largest wind turbine and solar energy industries in the world and is putting a lot of R&D into these areas.

These targets are partly a response to visible intense city pollution and industrial health problems, which, together with the aging population and absence of a welfare state, are risking social instability. Also, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 150% since 2002, the north of China is experiencing rapid glacial melting and desertification while flooding is a big problem in the south. See
Nevertheless they make environmental moves by the USA look timid indeed, relying largely on conversion from oil to natural gas extraction, moves towards renewable energy and control of automobile emissions.
China being a command economy makes drastic action easier. E.g. hundreds of polluting factories have been closed, with resultant job losses, and some cities are suffering blackouts as power is cut off by local officials to meet emission targets. The irony is that leaders are faced with a choice between two kinds of human suffering: loss of livelihood and break up of community on one side, catastrophic climate change, pollution and starvation on the other. The west's leaders do not have a command option. Only changes in human behaviour can avoid the problems of global warming coming to a head.

Other developing nations are also taking the global warming problem more seriously. In Bangladesh the plan is to reduce emissions by one third by 2030 as well as to deal with the problems already created by global warming, such as producing thousands of cyclone shelters and disaster-proof latrines. South Korea has been spending $23 billion per year on green growth measures since 2008.

Where all this is leading no one can know. The whole picture could change through discovery of some unexpected mechanism in the atmosphere or the oceans, or through the development of controlled fusion or even migration of manufacturing into space should really cheap surface-to-orbit transport be developed.

author 2077 AD
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