Written by David Holmes.

As the world’s largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, China is all too often held up as a pariah, thwarting international efforts to tackle climate change. Politicians in developed nations are often heard decrying any action on climate change at home  as inconsequential if China does not address its own emissions.

But there are at least three problems with this view. It ignores the part that historical concentrations have played in getting the earth’s atmosphere to 400ppm, which far outweigh current emissions differentials between nations. Secondly, the per capita inequities that exist between nations put China way down the list of offending nations. And thirdly, as the largest ‘workshop of the world’, China’s energy needs are not ‘domestic’ in the way we usually think of energy use in industrialised nations.  It is first world consumers who are placing the largest demand on China’s energy infrastructure, ensuring that China will remain hungry for power, wherever it can get it from.

Nevertheless, the sheer scale of China’s energy use, has provided convenient apologia for political elites in countries that have become lethargic about decarbonisation. It is not that such political elites necessarily believe in such an argument, it is just that it is often an easy sell to their constituencies.

There are two versions of such an argument. One is to suggest there is no hope of avoiding dangerous climate change with China’s current emissions whilst another is to abandon effective action until China makes the first move.

Clearly, a structural internationally co-ordinated approach is needed in which individual nations are no longer merely ‘participants’ but rather rational actors consciously reducing both the production and consumption of greenhouse-generating activities. China is in a unique position in relation to any form of multi-lateral action, precisely because of its place in the world economic order, but also because of its command economy. With some commentators pointing out that multi-party democracies have been unable to deliver decarbonisation policies that meaningfully respond to levels of public concern about climate change, China is managing to turn around gargantuan trends in a very short time.

Whilst it surpassed the US in C02 emissions in 2007, this year  its consumption of coal began to drop for the first time this century. Moreover, only a few months ago China signed up to eight partnership pacts with the US to reduce C02 emissions.

In June this year, China joined the UK in calling on all nations to reveal their plan of action well before the Paris climate summit in late 2015, in a joint statement from UK PM David Cameron, and Premier Li Keqiang who was visiting in London.  The two leaders also signed a series if deals on energy and low carbon technology.

Despite massive growth in electricity consumption and industrial production, China had managed to slow its emissions intensity between 2005 and 2013 by 28%. To achieve its current target of cutting up to 45% off 2005 levels by 2020, China’s investment in renewables may be decisive.

Most of the world thinks of China as the hub for solar PV exports, but in fact a Global New Energy Development report released in July, reveals China itself to have taken top spot from Germany as the leading PV market.

Research and consulting firm GlobalData has also released a report recently,  showing China has overtaken the US as the leading market in wind power, a capacity set to double in the next five years.

In short, China invests more annually in its renewable energy sector than all of Europe. Moreover, unlike market-based economies, China is encouraging electric car use, by fostering substantial subsidies and tax breaks to transform private transport path dependence.

These innovations in new technology and renewables are obviously what China excels in.  A more difficult challenge is establishing an effective national carbon market across its provinces,, which is expected to be rolled out by the end of 2016.  As with the renewables comparison, such a market, if successful will dwarf the size of the largest current trading system, the EU, but China must learn from the mistakes of other start-up markets around the world if it is to be effective.

Domestically, China is making progress on decarbonisation at a pace that suggests it is serious about the risks of dangerous climate change, as well as cleaning up the medical issues associated with urban pollution.

For many nations, the speed with which they need to re-design their energy infrastructures, to avoid the danger associated with 2 degrees warming is a challenge they are in denial about. And the lacklustre performance of recent climate summits is a measure of such denial.

According to a recent report by the Lowy Institute, China’s climate change policies: actors and drivers““China is losing confidence in the UNFCCC’s effectiveness, and may turn to regional solutions if the next round of negotiations in Paris in 2015 is not fruitful,”. It is as though the political inertia of global negotiations is an unwelcome distraction from getting on with practical solutions in China.  The speed of reform within China, as impressive as it is, some observers see as inadequate to China’s global responsibility, as it is still on track to double the emissions of the US by 2020.  The formulation of the 13th five year plan 2015-20 will likely seek to curb such growth in emissions, as China has enough to do decarbonizing at home, before it can claim climate leadership on a global stage.

David Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at the Monash University.

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