7 Signs That China Is Serious About Combating Climate Change

Lambert here: Good to know, even if everything does have to have an election hook these days.

By Ben Adler, who covers environmental policy and politics for Grist, with a focus on climate change, energy, and cities. Originally published at Grist.

Two years after President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that their countries would work together to combat climate change, Republicans and conservatives in the U.S. continue to cite China’s rising carbon emissions as a reason not to bother cutting our own.

Earlier this month, Donald Trump’s economic advisor Stephen Moore claimed that limiting our carbon pollution is pointless because of China’s supposedly growing coal dependency. “Every time we shut down a coal plant in the U.S., China builds 10,” Moore told E&E News. “So how does that reduce global warming?”

Not only is Moore’s statement simply untrue, but the broader conservative theory behind it is badly outdated. China’s coal use and carbon emissions have dropped for the last two years. In 2015, China cut its coal use 3.7 percent and its emissions declined an estimated 1–2 percent, following similar decreases in 2014.

If China continues to cut its emissions, or even just keeps them at current levels, the country will be way ahead of its goal of peaking emissions by around 2030, which it laid out in 2014 and recommitted to during the Paris climate talks last December.

In part, China’s emissions are dropping because the country is undergoing a dramatic shift in the nature of its economy. For years, China had been rapidly industrializing and growing at a breakneck pace. Growth often causes emissions to rise, all the more so when a country has an expanding manufacturing sector and is building out its basic infrastructure such as highways and rail lines. Heavy industrial activity — especially making cement and steel, which are needed for things like buildings, roads, and rail tracks — can be extremely energy intensive and have a massive carbon footprint. But now, as China is becoming more fully industrialized, its growth is slower and driven more by service industries, like technology, that are much less carbon intensive.

And the Chinese government is spurring this shift to a lower-carbon economy by reducing its indirect subsidies, such as favorable lending from state-controlled banks, for coal and other carbon-heavy industries.. “This is actually a correction for the economy because China is adopting a more market approach,” says Ranping Song, an expert on Chinese climate policy at the World Resources Institute, an international environmental research organization. “That will have an impact on emissions.”

We can’t know whether Chinese emissions will continue dropping every year, but China is committed to improving the energy efficiency of its economy and the cleanliness of its energy sources, and it’s already off to a strong start. “There is a set of things happening in China that will continue to change the trajectory of its emissions,” says Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here are seven things China is doing to curb its climate-warming emissions:

— Limiting coal use. Just a week after that 2014 announcement with Obama, China released an energy strategy that called for capping coal consumption by 2020. China also put a three-year moratorium on new coal mines, starting this year, and it’s been shutting down existing coal mines. Cutting back on coal not only reduces carbon emissions; it combats poor air quality, which has been causing serious health problems in notoriously polluted Chinese cities such as Beijing and Wuhan.

— Carbon trading. Next year, China will launch a nationwide carbon market, the world’s largest. It will cover six of the biggest carbon-emitting sectors, starting with coal-fired electricity generation. This cap-and-trade program will build on programs China has already created in two provinces and five cities.

— Cleaning up cars and trucks. China is the largest car market in the world. Cutting pollution from automobiles, like cutting pollution from coal plants, is essential not just to reducing CO2 emissions but to clearing the air in cities: The government estimates that roughly one-third of Beijing’s epic smog is from automobiles. China is pulling old, inefficient cars off the road, providing incentives for buying hybrids and electric cars, and enforcing stricter fuel-efficiency standards for new cars.

— Making buildings more energy efficient. Two years ago, China started issuing requirements for buildings to be given energy-efficiency upgrades. The energy savings are just beginning to be felt, but given that buildings can last for decades or even centuries, there could be a long payoff period.

— Building renewable capacity. China knows it needs alternative sources of energy to replace coal, so the government is investing heavily in developing wind and solar energy. “China has emerged as a leader in renewable energy,” reported Song and one of his colleagues in a blog post in April. “Investment soared from $39 billion to $111 billion in just five years, while electric capacity for solar power grew 168-fold and wind power quadrupled.” In Paris, China promised that at least 20 percent of its energy portfolio will come from non–fossil fuel sources by 2030.

— Building nuclear reactors. Whatever you think of nuclear energy, it is one of the lowest-carbon forms of electricity out there. Earlier this month, China announced it will build at least 60 new nuclear power plants within a decade.

— Building high-speed rail. A wealthier citizenry in a more industrialized country will be traveling a lot more. To limit transportation emissions, China is rapidly building high-speed rail. It already has more than 11,800 miles of high-speed rail that carry 2.7 million riders daily, and expansion plans are on the drawing board.

China will surely encounter hurdles and hiccups as it continues trying to rein in its emissions. The nation’s economy has recently been slowing down for cyclical reasons, as well as the structural ones mentioned above. After years of debt-fueled corporate investment and growth, Chinese companies are paying down their debts at the same time that the government is reining in industrial overcapacity and winding down the stimulus spending that got it through the Great Recession. China’s economy will eventually pick up again, and when it does, citizens will likely buy more cars, air conditioners, and electronic goods, leading to more electricity and gasoline use and perhaps greater carbon emissions.

But the policies China is enacting are designed to ultimately create a higher standard of living without more emissions. Since China has enormous low-lying cities that will be largely underwater in a century if climate change continues spinning out of control, the country has plenty of reason to curb its emissions and has shown that it is serious about doing it. That’s true whether Republican politicians in Washington choose to believe it or not.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Mark P.

    [1] The picture on China’s coal use is more complex than this article represents. In 2015, China’s central and provincial governments issued environmental approvals to 210 coal-fired power plants — four weekly, in other words.

    On the other hand, the Chinese now lead the world in high-efficiency, low-carbon coal-fired plant technology. And they do say they’ll replace those coal plants with nuclear and whatever other alternatives can be made to work ASAP.

    China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), the highest government body, are predominantly drawn from the engineering professions, whereas members of the U.S. Congress and Senate are predominantly lawyer/grifters. Obviously, the Chinese will be more intelligent and pragmatic on these issues

    The potential downside here is, they’ll pragmatically go straight to large-scale geoengineering when the fit hits the shan climate-wise. Arguably, with the largest existing weather modification program, the big dam projects and the island-building, China is already doing geoengineering.

    [2] The real spoiler to watch is India.

    Nobody’s really paying attention. But Modi has explicitly told the rest of the world that the Indian government’s first responsibility is to lift its billions out of poverty over the next quarter-century and he’s damned well going to build as many coal plants as that requires. If the average global temperature rises two degrees, he says, that’s secondary — the already-developed world has no right to tell him what to do when it achieved its own development via fossil fuels.

    While one sympathizes a little, Modi is wrong. A two degree rise in world temperature will not be secondary, even for India.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Good points all. The Chinese tend to be ultra pragmatists about this sort of thing. Their leadership has always had a heavy engineering bias for reasons lost in CCP history, and this does tend to introduce a sort of ‘ok, we have a problem, lets go fix it’ type of mentality. My perception is also that the average Chinese is very acutely aware of environmental issues – impossible not to be in a country with such awful air pollution and so subject to the whims of flood and drought. The growing middle class want air perhaps more than anything.

      There are a number of problems though – for one thing, coal is very important for a lot of the poorer inland provinces and their representatives have a lot of say at senior level. It may be that the loss of jobs may be too difficult to deal with politically. Another is that the obvious replacement for coal – renewables and nuclear, have their own problems. The grid as it exists simply can’t deal with the imbalanced loads produced by wind and solar and unless they very quickly invest in major DC lines linking the windy, sunny deserts with major population areas, they are going to have serious problems. I’m a sceptic about their nuclear programme – unlike other big infrastructure programmes they’ve been very slow to get it moving, which leads me to think that they are struggling to make nuclear work economically. Nuclear is particularly vulnerable if energy use has peaked (as it almost certainly has), because to work economically you need to have a pretty much constant growing baseline demand (nuclear plants basically produce the same amount of energy, day and night, summer and winter). If that demand is already me through other uses, and cheap renewables eat away at demand in chunks, then you have a problem.

      India, as you say, can be a spoiler, although I’m very sceptical at growth projections for India. I think there are very deep structural problems in India which will prevent growth outside of specific regions.

      1. Vatch

        Excellent point about the horror of Chinese air pollution. I suspect they don’t care much about climate change, and they just want to make their air breathable. Anything that happens with regard to climate change would just be a side effect.

        If they were really serious about combating climate change, they wouldn’t have scrapped their one child policy.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I think you’d be surprised awareness of climate change. Even back in the 1990’s when I first visited China it was an ‘issue’, mostly because of fears of desertification. At the time there were lots of dust storms coming from the Gobi Desert blowing over Beijing and this was being blamed on climate change and poor agricultural practices. Most of the population of China have been brought up with an awareness of the vulnerability of their lives to flooding and drought and so on. The precariousness of China to the whims of nature is something most Chinese are acutely aware of, and always have been.

          1. Vatch

            Being aware of a problem and being willing to do what needs to be done to solve it are separate phenomena.

          2. Mark

            “Business Green continues with the recent info from the Ipsos survey, (of 3000 residents of Chinese cities) noting that there’s “overwhelming support for paying a premium on energy bills to secure cleaner energy sources with 92.6% saying they can accept a price rise when buying green power.”

            44% said they would support a monthly increase in their bills of RMB 10–30 ($1.5–$4.5) if it delivered clean power supplies
            90.6% saying they would accept rises of up to 10% of the average Chinese family monthly electricity bill, which would equate to an increase of $1.50 a month.”


      2. Mark P.

        PlutoniumKun wrote: ‘I’m a sceptic about their nuclear programme – unlike other big infrastructure programmes they’ve been very slow to get it moving, which leads me to think that they are struggling to make nuclear work economically.’

        I don’t know about the economic part. Their nuclear engineering R&D does seem strangely slow to build momentum. Their Gen3+ designs that I’ve heard about all seem to be adaptions of American designs like the Westinghouse AP1000 or the ESBWR.

        And all those breathless accounts of how they’ve started their own LFTR program? It turns out they’re still plodding along trying to replicate by 2030 the basic molten-salt reactor tech that Alvin Weinberg’s tenure at Oak Ridge achieved by the late 1960s.

        This is technology that from 1971 to 1990 the Russians, during the Soviet era, ran their whole fleet of Alfa class hunter-killer subs on via molten-salt lead-bismuth fast reactors.

        In 1955 the second U.S. nuclear submarine, the USS Seawolf, used a liquid metal (sodium) cooled reactor.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Yes, well, I’m not sure if the problems are primarily technical or economic. They’ve obviously tried a scattergun approach at first – a mix of US, European, Japanese and Russian reactors, along with some domestic designs (they bought pebble bed reactors off the Germans via South Africa), with the presumed intention of deciding afterwards which ones suited them most. I suspect that none of them have worked well.

          There is a huge bezzle around alternative reactor designs. Commercial mini-reactors, molten salt reactors, fast breeders, thorium reactors, pebble beds etc., etc., have been around since the 1950’s, and nobody has been able to make them work commercially. My feeling is that if, for example, molten salt designs really worked, the military would have been using them years ago. The Russian alfa class reactors were ingenious, but presumably abandoned for a very good reason.

        2. Cry Shop

          Just as there are US actors who tied into light water reactors (and sodium reactors as the fast reactor technology) China’s nuclear industry is now packed full of engineers and technocrats who are equally committed. The more concrete, the better.

          Separately the families behind the nuclear fuel rod monopoly in China has scotched the idea of using dissolved fuel thorium reactor, and the fuel rod based thorium systems so far have all failed to address the (reactive) poisoning.

    2. Charger01

      The schizophrenia is maddening to say the least. The quest for groaf is all encompassing for Team China, whether that be Three Gorges, the 210 new coal plants, or the emergent nuke designs, it’s all pointing towards increasing populations and increasing carbon consumption.
      The counterexample that I can recall is Norway, attempting to offset their state-owned oil biz with carbon reduction. I don’t envision China successfully offsetting their emissions without gaming the system.

  2. tegnost

    This is all well and good, but I see nothing here about autonomous vehicles /s
    60 nuclear power plants in 10 years? Interested in what the engineers think this means and if there’s some new tech that I’ve not been exposed to? Still waiting for my cell phone sized personal fusion reactor…

  3. Gaylord

    Oh, get real! This is idiotic. Accelerated heating and abrupt climate change are bearing down now, beyond any possible human control. There is no known way to “combat” this — such talk is just more of our species’ extreme hubris. These minuscule efforts to “reduce” carbon emissions will have no effect whatsoever. All the carbon that’s been emitted remains in the atmosphere and oceans, continuing to build up; plus, now that methane is being emitted at record levels in the Arctic, due to thawing permafrost, all bets are off for stemming the continuation of accelerated warming and the dire consequences that we know are coming, long before 2030.

    1. pretzelattack

      mitigation is still possible according to the scientists. doesn’t look too likely, with all the political games. but we caused the climate change, and we can still affect how bad it gets. currently. we don’t know exactly where the cliff, or cliffs are.

  4. Roland

    @ Vatch 1.1

    China doesn’t need a one-child policy any more. China now has fertility similar to most of the developed world. i.e. the women just don’t make many babies any more.

    The liberal market economy forces everyone into the paid labour force, since households that generate more paid labour can out-bid those with less, esp. for things such as housing. Then the rising cost of living, caused by the bidding war, absorbs most of the wages of the paid labour force. The cpaitalists reap most of the benefits of the increased labour supply and production.

    Where is the surplus labour available to raise children? The capitalists are not incentivized to employ labour to that purpose, since they are accustomed to the workers producing the future labour supply at their own cost.

    In effect, in the developed world today, the proletariat’s real wages are sub-Ricardian. The workers do not make enough to both support themselves, and the total cost of raising a generation of replacement people with the same education and skill-set. Result: sub-replacement fertility rates are becoming univeersal.

    In the 1970’s, when we started seeing sub-replacement fertility in a handful of European countries (I seem to remember it started in Netherlands and East Germany), nobody expected the phenomenon to endure over generations, or to become widespread across regions and cultures.

    Demographically, we’re in unexplored territory. There are few historical examples of sub-replacement fertility, and those usually confined to certain classes in society. It is curious that the Swiss bourgeoisie of early-modern times started going in this direction (I think Malthus talks about their “prudential restraint”). Another example was the travails of Roman emperors to encourage baby-making among the Roman ruling class. That was utterly fruitless–great Senatorial names continued only through adoption or acquisition, never through blood descent. Where the Romans’ murderousness left off, the barreness finished up.

    More curiously still, it appears that the fertility culture of the Roman elite did become more widely instituted among the entire imperial population. There was a gradual diminution of settlements and cultivated area. The Roman elite increasingly turned to labour importation from higher-fertility peoples outside the Empire. Perhaps the ever more elaborate frontier works of the later Roman Empire were intended less to militarily prevent migration than to administratively modulate the population flow.l

    1. Vatch

      China, India, and many other countries, absolutely need a one child policy. It’s nice that China’s current birth rate is low, but they still have an enormously overpopulated country (like India). Because of demographic momentum, the population of China is continuing to grow. It takes two to three generations for a population to level off after the birth rate stabilizes. China still has a long way to go.

      India and many parts of Africa are in even worse shape. As Mark P. said:

      But Modi has explicitly told the rest of the world that the Indian government’s first responsibility is to lift its billions out of poverty over the next quarter-century and he’s damned well going to build as many coal plants as that requires.

      There are a lot of poor people in India, and every year India’s population increases. It will probably become the world’s most populous country in 2022. That translates to a lot of coal plants. For more information, see:


      China has 1.378 billion people in 2016, and may have 1.411 billion in 2030. They may “only” have 1.343 billion in 2050. That’s still far too many.

      India has 1.328 billion in 2016, may have 1.530 in 2030, and a whopping 1.708 billion in 2050. Pakistan and Nigeria are both headed towards nightmarish growth. I don’t believe that any of these countries will reach their projected populations, because there will be epidemics, famines, and wars. Wouldn’t it be nice if population growth could be prevented by something benign like contraception, rather than by starvation and disease?

      1. Cry Shop

        I’d say what is needed right now is a -1 Adult American / Australian / Canadian / Brit per family policy, based on who’s doing the most harm to the ecology that supports humans. This policy will also impact on all the production that was off shored to China, leading to a contraction in the Chinese economy with immediate benefits.

        Any volunteers?

        1. Vatch

          I guess this is an example of the mean spirited comments that prevent many people from even discussing the very serious problem of overpopulation. Perhaps you think you’re being funny.

          1. Cry Shop

            Ah, so Indians and Chinese who do far less harm per capita than the list above, have nearly no social insurance network and are dependent on their children to take care of them in their dotage should just jump off the cliff… and I’m mean spirited.

            1. Vatch

              Overpopulation causes and worsens poverty. The Earth is finite, and anyone who advocates population growth as a solution to any problems is promoting a Ponzi scheme. The government of India and China have a responsibility to provide social insurance for their elderly citizens, because any system that depends on population growth is completely unsustainable.

              On many occasions, I and others have stated that population stabilization and reduction need to be accompanied by a reduction in per capita consumption and pollution in the prosperous countries. And the U.S. is also overpopulated — it’s not just India and China. We’re not putting all the blame elsewhere.

              You may not be a mean spirited person, but implying that people should volunteer to commit suicide to solve environmental problems is definitely a mean spirited thing to say.

  5. McWatt

    Limiting the number of people on the planet is the single biggest thing that we can do to help save it.

    That and stop poking holes in the atmosphere with rockets and limiting air travel.

    1. witters

      ‘Limiting the number of people on the planet is the biggest thing we can do to help the planet’ A new justification for police shootings.

  6. RBHoughton

    I think you may be judging China policy in comparison to western policy. I think it is not like that.

    In the west we have an adversarial system that promotes opposing views in the legislature which always (yes, always) means initiatives are watered-down or made ineffective. Surely every person familiar with the daily news in the Anglosphere knows that the only significant changes that occur are those thrust unexpectedly onto our political managers.

    My impression in China is that once a decision has been made to act, it is enforced. If there were people of contrary views they will not pursue them once the will of the majority has manifested.

  7. Pespi

    At risk of sounding like an orientalist ****hole, the Mohist “maximum population” philosophy seems to be deeply rooted in current Chinese ideology. China has ambition to fill as much square meterage with human beings as possible, and if it takes magic sky mirrors to stop global warming and allow maximizing of the population, so be it. But the Chinese elite have sent their children to our Ivy league neoliberal scam-game mills so maybe not, hopefully there will be enough of the old guard around to save the planet while the kids are messing with derivatives.

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