Clear The Air Energy Blog Rotating Header Image

The future China chooses will dictate the future of the planet

The future China chooses will dictate the future of the planet

China is the largest contributor to global warming and also the biggest investor in renewables. The future it chooses will affect us all, writes Georg Kell


Because of its size and enromous growth, China is the world’s largest contributor to global warming, as well as the biggest investor in renewables. Photograph: Tim Graham/Tim Graham/Getty Images

The call by the Chinese government for an “ecological civilisation” which aims to control pollution and greenhouse gas emissions may sound like just another party slogan to the casual observer from outside the country.

But there is little doubt that China is serious about changing course. Environmental concerns have become a national priority, and business will play its part.

Recently I joined enterprises belonging to the Global Compact Network China at a summit they convened on Caring for Climate. In collaboration with various business and civil society associations, they pledged to do their part for the environment. Commitments were issued to implement restrictions on pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and to undertake specific measures collectively. Some firms had already stepped forward with concrete campaigns, such as Sinopec’s “blue sky – clean water” initiative.

The presence of high-level government officials from various departments left little doubt that these initiatives are serious, and that a profound change of course is underway. The commitments signed at the summit will also be submitted to Chinese authorities at the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit this September, and to the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw in November.

A number of pressures feed into the gravity with which both business and government, from their respective standpoints, regard the linked issues of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

In terms of the economy, Chinese government reports consistently place the cost of pollution as more than 3% of GDP. The World Bank has estimated the negative impact of pollution combined with resource depletion at close to 10% of GDP.

In terms of the wellbeing of the population, air pollution is widely recognised as a serious health as well as quality of life issue, one that may be taking years away from the life expectancy of city dwellers. It also discourages domestic enterprises as well as foreign investors from setting up headquarters or operation centres in Chinese cities. Other types of pollution, such as runoff from industrial or chemical plants, are now also being recognised as threats to rural areas and farming, as well as to urban domains. The safety and quality of food grown in China has also become a serious concern of the Chinese population.

Responding to the Global Compact about corporate sustainability priorities in the decades that follow the conclusion of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, firms from the China Network firms prominently cited climate change and the urgent need to follow a “green” development path that places a premium on high efficiency of energy use, low pollution and low emissions. Several corporate leaders remarked that they saw poor air quality as tantamount to a human rights issue.

Because of its size and remarkable growth over the past two decades, China is already the world’s largest contributor to global warming – though on a per capita basis, CO2 emissions are still around half the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. As several hundred million people have yet to be integrated into a modern way of life, energy demand and environmental issues are bound to grow in tandem.

Deploying the latest technologies and improving energy efficiency across all economic activities are likely to remain at a priority level for years to come. Equally important will be the use of renewables and whatever other innovations may lead to a low-carbon economy.

Already China is by far the biggest investor in renewables, and several pilot projects for carbon exchanges are under construction. A national carbon market, or a resource tax system favouring green investment, is a distinct possibility within the near future. China’s vulnerable ecology and dependence on energy imports both make such moves likely.

The daunting challenges are clearly understood by China’s leadership, and business has heard the call. Whether or not China will succeed in becoming a world leader in low-carbon market development is of fundamental importance for the whole planet. Well on its way to become the world’s largest economy, the future of China and the future of the globe now are intimately linked. If China succeeds, the world’s chances go up accordingly.

Georg Kell is executive director of United Nations Global Compact

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>