Why China Is Already the World’s Leader on Climate Change

There is a Chinese proverb that translates as: “A small hole is easy to fill, a larger one causes suffering.” The implication is that a small hole should be addressed quickly before it becomes bigger. I can think of few other proverbs that so succinctly summarize the importance and peril of climate change.

For those with longer memories, one can recall a time not so long ago in which China was a less than active participant in the fight against climate change. In 2006, China officially overtook the United States as the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, spewing more than 6.2 billion tons, slightly more than the 5.8 billion emitted by the U.S. China’s appetite for coal and oil drove even higher emissions in following years, reaching 9.7 billion tons in 2011, compared to 5.4 billion by the U.S. Electricity production, automobiles and exhaust from the production of raw materials such as concrete and steel all contributed significantly to the deluge.

As awareness of global warming and climate change prompted growing international criticism of China’s activities, Beijing’s initial reaction was a defensive one. The government expressed dissatisfaction, stating it felt singled out. Chinese spokespersons routinely (and correctly) cited the fact that the per capita rate of emissions was still much lower than the U.S. and most European countries. These voices argued that China deserved time, like other Western nations had historically enjoyed, to go through different stages of development before adopting more expensive, environmentally-friendly industrial practices. So, for much of the 2000s, China went about business in this fashion, building and burning like Western countries of old.

But behind the construction, development, and soaring economic benefits, there was a slow accumulation of serious warning signs. The three largest rivers in China — the Yangtze, Yellow, and Pearl — and their tributaries support more than 80 percent of all grain production in China. All of these water sources have their origins in the Himalaya Mountains, fed by the annual melting of ice caps and glaciers. In the late 2000s, a growing wealth of overwhelming evidence showed these ice deposits were steadily receding from year to year.

Other glaciers elsewhere in China, such as the Urumqi No.1 Glacier in Xinjiang, were also shown to be receding. These glaciers, too, are sources of seasonal water critical for agriculture. True to the wisdom of small holes needing to be plugged, the Chinese government was quick to realize the possible implications of sustained melting, not only in catastrophic agricultural damage but also in the mass flooding of cities. This prompted the most impressive reversal of environmental policy the world has yet witnessed.

The turnaround executed by China has been nothing short of extraordinary. The first to come under control has been the use of coal, which decreased by about 10 percent from 2011 to 2015. This may not seem like a large number, but no other emerging economy with ever-burgeoning energy needs has ever been able to execute such a swift transition. Even the U.S. needed about the same amount of time to lower its coal consumption by 10 percent from 2007 to 2011.

In a first since 2000, China’s CO2 emissions decreased in 2015. The use of renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, wind and solar skyrocketed during this period, quintupling from 2000 to 2015. In 2015, China was responsible for about a third of all renewable energy investments worldwide, installing enough solar panels domestically to cover one and a half soccer fields every hour of every day for the entire year. The only thing more amazing is the fact that China has since doubled this rate in 2016.

Chinese focus on solar panel development has lowered the global price by more than 80 percent since 2008, an incredible achievement for a fiercely competitive sector. China now owns five of the six largest solar panel manufacturing companies and the world’s largest wind-turbine manufacturer. In 2015, China accounted for about 40 percent of all new renewable energy capacity added to the world. Ironically, President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from climate change policies will likely increase this advantage further, accentuated by the flow of AIIB money that will soon begin funding the purchase of Chinese technology in emerging economies.

No one will disagree that China still has a long way to go. The use of coal, especially for industrial purposes, remains commonplace and is expected to grow a little in the next decade. China remains the world’s largest CO2 polluter at about 10 billion tons per year. But what makes China the world’s leader in climate change is not the progress that has been realized, nor the road yet to be traveled. China is now the world’s leader for the simple fact that it fears climate change more than any other country, definitely more so than the U.S. Perhaps recent changes to the Mississippi River will prompt some renewed thinking in Washington, especially given that 90 percent of all U.S. agricultural exports are related to the Mississippi and its tributaries.

Politics aside, overall social awareness of climate change is still much greater in the U.S. than in China. Gallup polls have shown only a quarter of Chinese are aware of its seriousness, compared to 63 percent of Americans. Awareness and policy, however, are two vastly different things, especially when the majority of Americans still believe they will not personally be affected by its adverse consequences.

There is also a strong, persisting global ignorance that prevents modern consumers from fully realizing the environmental damage done in a global context. Few, for example, ever consider how much pollution in China is caused by the manufacture of their iPhone. Until this mentality changes to promote more urgency in other countries, China and its rapid advancements in renewables technology and market share will continue to lead the race. Hence, we can close with yet another appropriate Chinese proverb: “All things start difficult before becoming easier.”


Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai, researching East Asian culture and economics.

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