China goes "Greenish"
How China manages to pollute and save the world at the same time.
大家好 / Hello Everyone 👋
During Biden's first day in office, the new president of the United States of America rejoined the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This was big news as without the USA's participation the already daunting task of curbing our emissions and sustaining our planet's warmth to a survivable 2 degrees Celsius would have been even harder.
Climate change is a polarizing and complex topic and I am not an expert. But I do know that society must come together and work against it.
In today's article I will use the word “global” a lot. This is due to the fact that China is huge, and simply has a level of importance in our world that some people took too long to realize. From China's Northeastern 'Rust Belt' provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning to the factories of the Pearl River Delta, resources have been produced and consumed at a rate unimaginable 50 years ago.
Unfortunately, as with the case of previous Industrial Revolutions, like the one in England, the environment took a backstage in terms of importance. China's central government has been pushing some interesting environmentally friendly measures that are growing in terms of importance with each 5 years plan (basically the set of guidelines that the country will follow, the next one coming to public this month).
The Carbon Neutrality Announcement;
China as a Polluter;
China as a "Green Country”;
Will China reach its environmental goals?
The Carbon Neutrality Announcement
22nd September 2020. The world is in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, yet one headline stood out from the unfortunately habitual news:
"China aims for Carbon Neutrality by 2060".
This goal, proclaimed by Xi Jinping in front of the United Nations General Assembly, was met with incredulity and fervorous support at the same time by the global community. Now, see, this pledge by the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter came as a surprise because as Bloomberg says:
"China and other developing nations had long held that wealthier countries who benefited from earlier industrialization, heedless of the dangers from burning fossil fuel, should carry most of the economic burden for preventing catastrophic warming."
Xie Zhenhua, the spokesperson for China's climate change policies, informed that China will work on writing low-carbon regulations but without going into too much detail. How will the country, home to 1.3 Billion people and with a still growing lower to middle class, that increasingly needs more energy for domestic consumption instead of producing stuff to export, achieve its goals in 39 years time?
China as a Polluter
2008 was an important year for China. The year of the Beijing Olympics provided the perfect opportunity to showcase how far the country had advanced in the last 30 years, after it started to transform itself through its policy of “reform and openness” enacted by Deng Xiaoping. Air quality was of utmost importance and the country even resorted to weather manipulation to ensure clear skies during the sport events.
Beijing was still polluted in the end, and there was a thick layer of smog enveloping the city a few weeks later.
The issue here is that, in order to expand its industry and build infrastructure/cities at a rate that humankind had not yet seen, China had to consume a lot of resources. This means that 10 years ago China accounted consistently for 46% of the global coal production and 49% of global coal consumption. This was almost as much as the rest of the world combined.
China is a big country and clearly went through a huge industrialization process, which is still happening but at a slower and hopefully more sustainable pace.
A country that in 2019 produced 28% of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide and that saw an increase of 2.2% annually from 2009-2018, showcases a region embroiled in a near calamity (in environmental terms).
China is still overly dependent on coal as an energy source, and still represents half of the global annual consumption of it. And again, China is the coal's largest producer so it is all about economic independence in the end. I mean, using a fuel in which the country doesn't have to depend on others is a major strategic advantage that protects Chinese energy interests.
There are other major environmental issues such as water quality for example. In 2019 7,084 people were arrested for environmental crimes on the Yangtze river, Asia's largest and the world's longest inside a single country. In fact, China's water management and water basins cleaning bill stands now in the hundreds of billions. Most small to medium sized Chinese factories simply do not have proper waste management solutions.
China as a "Green Country”
There are two sides to a coin. Unknown to most, China tops the world in green energy, as Foreign Policy writes:
China has emerged as the lead supplier of this transition. In 2018, Chinese companies made up over a third of the world’s manufacturers of wind turbines.In 2019, the country built over 70 percent of the world’s solar photovoltaics. In electric vehicles, China’s command is even greater: It holds almost three-fourths of the world’s manufacturing capacity for lithium ion battery cells, and it controls even more of the supply chain before the final assembly. Of the three big green energy technologies taking off around the world, then, two are largely made in China with a good portion of the third made there as well.
This is the capitalization of the “Green Revolution” ideal. A process in which China can continue its growth and expand its already advanced technology capabilities in order to position itself as not only a consumer but also the main player in green energy production, competing with blocks such as the European Union and the United States. As an example, the world's second largest solar farm is located in China's Qinghai province.
Some big companies in the renewable energy field:
☀️Tongwei, LONGi and JinkoSolar in the solar voltaic panels space: Top 3 global solar module manufacturers
🌬️ Goldwind as a wind turbine manufacturer: world's third largest and with an increasing presence in Africa
🔋Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) as the world's largest Electric Vehicles (EVs) battery producer, who is building an overseas factory in Germany at the moment.
As an interesting result of the combat against traffic but also in the attempt to lower the levels of air pollution in major cities across China, a lottery system of license plates was implemented in 2011 in Beijing. The last number of your plate determines which days of the week you can drive in (it rotates every quarter in order to be fair and it only affects weekdays).
EVs (Electric Vehicles) do not have to follow such requirements which greatly helped the industry to establish itself as an attractive option to the urban middle class and to Beijing being dubbed the “EV capital of the world”.
Another great example is Shenzhen of course, the megapolis that borders Hong Kong in Southern China, since its system of electric public transportation buses (16,000) and taxis (21,000) went completely green by the end of 2017.
China, being the number one car market globally, is setting an example on how convenience is also a big factor for the population's acceptance of EVs. Last year 1.3 million electric vehicles were sold in the country. As per September 2020 China had 1.42 million State Grid charging points and its looking to add 300,000 more. Bear in mind this is only the public grid and I am not counting charging stations from companies like Tesla, Xpeng or NIO (which also has battery swap stations that switch your car’s battery for a new one in less than 5 minutes).
Will China reach its environmental goals?
Having 14 cities in the IQAir 50 Most Polluted Cities China is still holds the 2nd place at the moment with the most number of cities on that list, only beat by India which alarmingly has 26, the worst being Ghaziabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This shows how much China still has to work in order to achieve the goals set publicly by its president in 2020.
I should also mention the duality of China's meteoric rise in the past 40 years with the 40 years limit that it has set itself to lead the global “Green Revolution”.
China will have to gradually lower its coal energy consumption through a series of quite hard challenges whilst developing its rural areas in a sustainable way that does not destroy the environment surrounding them. It will be a delicate matter to manage with an increasingly aware population that wishes to have the same lifestyle as in bigger cities.
China can, and will, set an example with countries in the Belt and Road Initiative by providing funding and its know-how for the development of renewable energy products in Africa and Pakistan. At the same time, it will position itself as a competitor to Japan, and, most importantly, to the USA. This competition though, if done correctly, might just save our planet. But only time will tell.
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My name is Jorge and China Abridged is where I write weekly about Chinese technology and society. I have a B.A in Asian Studies with the University of Lisbon, won a scholarship from the Confucius Institute for academic excellency and lived for 2 years in the Middle Kingdom.
For the past 4 years, I have been involved with one of the biggest fin-tech startups in the world and now I spend my time honing my language skills, perusing articles about 中国, and perfecting my RSS feed.
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