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Climate Change and Low-Carbon: China’s New Growth Engines; By Raakhee Suryaprakash

CAS article no. 0147/2016

September 2016 has been a busy month on the front of ratifying the Paris Climate Change Accord. First, at the G20 summit held in low-carbon city Hangzhou, China, the presidents of China and the United States announced that they have both ratified their country’s commitments made in the Paris Agreement in December 2015. On September 13, 2016, Brazil, Latin America’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), announced that it had ratified the treaty. Following the record-breaking signing of the Paris Agreement at the United Nations in New York on the 46th Earth Day (April 22, 2016) by 174 countries and the EU, the next step was ratification. This will enter into force and becoming legally binding on signatories once 55 parties representing 55% of global emissions formally ratify the accord. With the inclusion of China, United States and Brazil, this number stands at 28 parties representing 42% of global emissions.

China alone represents nearly a third of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, China and US together account for 38% of global GHG emissions and Brazil currently emits approximately 2.5% of it. The Paris Climate Treaty becomes international law through concerted unilateralism – countries make voluntary commitments (intended nationally determined contributions – INDCs) by building consensus nationally with the non-binding agreement of countries and then implementing it together for greater common good – the sum of parts being greater than the whole. With the greatest polluters leading from the front the path to legalization will be smoother and faster.

China’s Low-Carbon Future: Opportunities out of Threats

Following China’s economic slowdown the ‘new normal’ policy was propounded, which is and adjustment of the economic parameters to the slowdown of growth rate. Chinese President Xi Jiping while promoting the low-carbon future as part of the New Normal growth strategy emphasized

“… green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver. To protect the environment is to protect productivity and to improve the environment is to boost productivity. … We will unwaveringly pursue sustainable development and stay committed to green, low-carbon and circular development and to China’s fundamental policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment. In promoting green development we also aim to address climate change and over capacity. … We will make China a beautiful country with a blue sky, green vegetation and clear rivers so that our people can enjoy their lives in a liveable environment with the ecological benefits created by economic development.”

Using the opportunity arising out of the threats of a weak economy and a badly polluted environment China has opted for an eco-friendly growth strategy with an emphasis on renewable energy, afforestation and moving to support less-polluting and less-energy- intensive industries. The move has been driven by internal dynamics more than by external pressures. The aspiration of the average Chinese is to live in a clean and safe environment. With news of bottled clean air, the smog leading to shutdown of normal activities, and the aspiration of Chinese to emigrate to live in a less-polluted places it follows that internal imperatives in addition to a slowing economy have driven this new strategy as much as the international pro-planet imperatives.

China had announced its ambitious Climate Plan in the end of June 2015. Its INDCs include the following focus areas:

  • 800 GW-1,000 GW non-fossil-based power by 2030, which is 20% of power capacity: Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and tidal energy are carbon-free and can directly reduce CO2 emissions if they replace fossil fuels–based energy sources. China accounted for nearly half of all new global wind installations in 2015-2016, installing a total of 30.5 GW, according to GlobalData, which predicts that China’s installed wind capacity will to triple by 2030, and is expected to reach 495 GW, up from 149 GW this last year. The scale can be accessed by comparison – the United States came second with 8.6 GW installed in the same year followed by Germany with 6.1 GW, and Brazil and India, both with 2.6 GW.

  • Reducing carbon intensity by 60%-65% below 2005 levels: China is already on this less carbon-intensive growth path and can achieve targets well before 2030. It’s emissions intensity or the emissions per unit GDP has been declining by more than 4% annually for a while now. China’s urbanisation program is also incorporating energy saving and emissions reduction measures by increasing energy efficiency although its low-carbon cities (e.g., Hangzhou, Tianjin, Shenzhen) have a way to go before becoming lighthouse projects. The low-carbon trajectory can be enhanced by modifying the energy structure, encouraging related innovation and opting for less carbon-intensive energy sources.

  • Increasing forest carbon stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels: that’s an increase in forest cover of 50-100 million hectares of forest (twice to four times the size of the United Kingdom). This would create a roughly 1-gigaton carbon sink, equivalent to stopping tropical deforestation for almost a full year, or taking 770 million cars off the road. While it’s an ambitious plan for the next decade and a half China has had some success that can be built upon. It increased its tree cover by 49 million hectares in two decades (from 1990 to 2010). Achieving its INDCs will require programmes and policies that will intertwine rural rejuvenation and reforestation – a well-planned reforestation effort with improvement of rural livelihoods and ecosystem services.


Although China has made a consistent effort to move toward less-polluting industries and a service economy, it hasn’t eschewed the dirty industries altogether. While its own coal use has been minimized it is building six thermal power stations in Pakistan as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). These coal fired plants are being built by Chinese consortiums and work is on full-swing. These plants will also be serviced by Chinese ships. One such plant that is in the process of being built is in the Pakistani state of Punjab and it is a supercritical power station consisting of two units each of 660 MWe. Yes such a plant will be of great benefit to Pakistan where many lack access to energy and a thermal plant is not as disruptive as building a dam yet when China is a global leader in renewable energy technology it is the classic doublespeak where it exports polluting technology instead of giving it up completely.

What’s Next

Global warming and climate change manifest in extreme weather events of increasing frequency and intensity. This in turn affects agriculture that sustains a majority of the world’s population and affects food security for all. Water scarcity is a recurrent theme and access to clean, safe, unpolluted water and irrigation are already causing water wars to break out nationally! Even though poverty elimination is the universal battle cry – a poor environment is the biggest hurdle to prosperity for all. With this unpleasant reality stalking us news of countries committing to low-carbon growth is a positive development.

‘Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016’ released by the UN Environment Programme indicated that developing nations such China, India and Brazil committed a total of USD 156 billion in new renewable energy capacity last year, up 19% since 2014. India was also among the top 10 investing countries in renewable energy, with its commitments rising 22% to USD 10.2 billion. China, meanwhile increased investment in renewable energy technology by 17% to USD 102.9 billion, which is more than a third of global commitment.

China has also repeatedly used the G-20 summit and other international fora to showcase its achievements and divert attention from frictions. Announcement of the ratification of the Paris Agreement while hosting the G20 in a low-carbon city is such a device. And happily endorsed by its smiling rival turned temporary ally and friend – United States led by President Obama.

While India promulgated the Global Solar Alliance of 120 nations at the Paris Summit last year, and has been on track with INDCs and signing the treaty. Ratification is not yet fast tracked. Developing countries have the opportunity amidst the looming economic slowdown and an imperilled planet to leapfrog into low-carbon development – sustainable development by creating conducive policies, structures and environment for it. Subsidies, taxation and concessional financing to encourage enterprises as well as research and development as well as international technology transfer in the quest for a low-carbon future is a win for both people and the planet. If China can go from being heavily coal dependent to becoming a leader in renewable energy capacity installation and use the climate adaptation imperatives as the engine for growth it serves as strategy that can help other nations escape the doldrums as well.


Tom Phillips, “China ratifies Paris climate change agreement ahead of G20,”

Vikrom Mathur and Aniruddh Mohan (Eds.), Road from Paris: Ensuring Effective and Equitable Climate Action (Observer Research Foundation, September 2016).

Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern (LSE), “China’s new growth model key to tackling climate change,”

Biliang Hu (BNU), Jia Luo (ICBC), Chunlai Chen and Bingqin Li (ANU), “Evaluating China’s low-carbon cities,”

(The writer, Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst and Associate Member, C3S. She holds a Master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues.)

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