Climate change and China: The indispensable nation

The country has long been exempted from mandatory emission-reduction targets that only apply to industrialised nations.

China is now a leading nation in terms of renewable energy investment and innovation, writes Heydarian [Reuters]

This year has been the hottest on record, unleashing a new round of extreme weather events, which have caused mayhem across the world. The recent massive flooding in Chennai in southern India, which affected millions of people, slashed as much as $3bn from the country’s assets.

The Philippines, a tropical nation battered by increasingly vicious storms, is still reeling from the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, which caused much devastation, and has just been hit by typhoon Melor.

It is gradually dawning upon us that climate change is a real and present danger to the survival of humanity. Crucially, this year also marked perhaps our final opportunity to head off a climactic apocalypse, as world powers squabbled over establishing a new global regime to oversee a desperately needed transition towards a more sustainable, clean and green future.

With the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed mandatory emission-reduction targets on the industrialised world, already expired, there is a need to negotiate a new legally binding set of agreements to meet climate change mitigation and adaptation targets.

And this is why the world fixed its gaze on the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris, where delegates from 195 nations gathered to iron out a global climate blueprint.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister presiding over the conference, laid out an ambitious draft agreement which aims to limit global warming in coming decades to below 2C.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, was emphatic, declaring: “The end is in sight. Let’s now finish the job. The world is watching.”

But the Paris Agreement is not a treaty that imposes mandatory emission-reduction targets on specific countries. So its success will largely depend on the goodwill of world powers, which hold humanity’s future in their hands.

Emerging economies such as China, which became the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases back in 2007, will be as – if not more – crucial than the United States and other industrialised countries to realising any global climate goal. Whether it likes or not, China has become a truly indispensable nation.

Two worlds in one

Since the commencement of its “reform and opening up” strategy in 1978, China has been caught in a frenzy of economic catch-up, rapidly climbing up the ladder of development and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty along the way. Within a single generation, it has been transformed from a failed Stalinist utopia into the world’s factory.

If the world is to avert a climate disaster, China, and to a lesser degree other emerging markets such as India, will have to abandon their current model of development in favour of a more carbon-neutral, sustainable economy.


Under the 13th Five Year Plan, the Chinese Communist Party is determined to establish a “Moderately Prosperous Society” by 2021, the centenary of the party’s establishment.

By 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the People Republic of China, the aim is to create a “modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious”.

Thanks to an “at-all-costs” model of development, which cared little for the environment, it didn’t take long for a turbo-charged China to climb to the top of the list of the world’s biggest carbon-emitting nations. According to a joint report by the Asian Development Bank and Tsinghua University, seven out of 10 of the most polluted cities are in China.

Pollution levels have been so heavy in Beijing this month that the Chinese government was forced to declare a “red alert” for the first time.

In aggregate terms, China is the world’s second largest economy, and poised to become the biggest in the near future. Yet, it is still classified as a developing nation. For this reason, it has long been exempt from mandatory emission-reduction targets that only apply to industrialised nations.

The indispensable nation

To be fair, unlike the West and Japan, which have long contributed to the concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere since embarking on the Industrial Revolution, China’s more recent industrialisation means that it carries smaller historical responsibility for human-induced climate change.

So rightfully, much of the burden of emission reduction should fall on the shoulders of the US and other developed nations.

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But any meaningful climate change mitigation regime will have to bring China onboard. Even in per capita terms, China’s emission levels (7.2 tonnes per person) are higher than the European Union (6.8 tonnes) and the global average (5 tonnes).

China alone is responsible for 29 percent of the total greenhouse gas emission, almost twice that of the US, which is followed by the EU, and the other emerging market giant, India.

The message is clear. If the world is to avert a climate disaster, China – and to a lesser degree other emerging markets such as India – will have to abandon their current model of development in favour of a more carbon-neutral, sustainable economy.

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To be fair, China is now a leading nation in terms of renewable energy investment and innovation, an encouraging fact that hasn’t escaped leading pundits such as Thomas Friedman, who has lavishly praised Beijing in this regard.

In the run-up to the COP 21 summit, China forwarded a plan that pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60-65 percent from the 2005 level, increase the contribution of renewables such as solar and wind power by up to 20 percent of its primary energy consumption, and designate the year 2030 as its peak emission year.


Critics claim, however, that China initially refused to commit itself to any legally binding document or any mandatory review of its pledges.

Ultimately, individual powers such as China will decide how far they are willing to go in averting a global climactic meltdown. The country’s successful transition to a sustainable economic model is not only a priority of its government, which has recognised the gravity of the issue, but also an imperative for humanity’s survival.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.