Huffpost Green
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Miliband Headshot

Green China?

Posted: Updated:

I spent three days in China the week before last and have only just caught my breath. It was a year since I had been and I came away with the overwhelming message that the Chinese system has turned the questions it was asking a year ago, about economy and society, into decisions that represent a decisive shift in its development model. This is what the leaders said at the recent Party Congress; it is what is in the Five Year Plan, the 12th, just published; and it is what I heard from foreign policy leaders, academics, and businesspeople. The phrasing was different -- new chapter, new phase -- but the meaning was serious. There is a lot to take in -- from the balance between domestic consumption and exports to intriguing hints about "political restructuring" to match "economic restructuring".

On the green agenda, this has substantial implications, for China and the world. When I first went to Beijing in 2008 Premier Wen was talking about climate change standing alongside terrorism as one of the two great challenges facing the world. At Copenhagen in 2009, the skeptics seemed to have the upper hand. Now there has been a rebalancing. I think the best way to see it is the following description: that the brown tap is still on, but the green tap is being turned on too.

The 12th Five Year Plan covers the middle period of a 15 year cycle from 2005 to 2020. The aspirations are clear -- under the theme of improving the quality of growth there is new priority to responding to climate change, strengthening conservation, developing the 'circular' (recyclable, sustainable) economy, promoting ecological protection, and getting better at disaster prevention and alleviation. This produces various key targets -- for example energy intensity and emissions per unit of GDP down 16 and 17 per cent respectively over the five year period.

The actual achievements against the 11th Five Year Plan have been monitored at the Climate Policy Initiative at Tsinghua University. Transport emissions are up; intensity is pretty flat. Manufacturing emissions are up; intensity is down. Agricultural emissions are up; intensity is down. Building emissions are up; intensity down. The significance of the sectoral breakdown becomes clear when you appreciate, for example, that the new Five Year Plan envisions 10 million people a year moving into the cities. So the decisions today about energy and transport get locked in for many years to come. And the pilots of low carbon living become absolutely crucial: not least as one of the pilot areas covers 45 million people (in Chongqing).

The Chinese motivation is at least threefold. Genuine concern about climate change as it affects for example water (I was told there had been a 10 per cent fall in Beijing rainfall in 50 years). Clear view of industrial benefits from the low carbon economy (although the phrase is not popular -- low carbon development much preferred). And a wider appreciation of what resource scarcity could mean for their economy and society. So opportunity and danger are leading to aspiration; and now the system has to deliver action.

The issue for the rest of us is whether in any scenario Chinese emissions -- in absolute terms -- can peak in the early 2020s, which is essential in most of the models for keeping the global rise in temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. It would be a brave man to bet on this. Part of the reason is that the Chinese don't see much sign of US emissions coming down, and their income per head is over ten times higher.

From Our Partners