China: Climate Protection as a Side Effect

17.10.2017

Since the USA opted out of the Paris Climate Agreement at the latest, hopes for global climate protection have been pinned on China, which is still the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases. It is now confidently presenting itself as a climate defender and celebrating its first successes. But just how effective are China’s efforts?

China is confidently presenting itself as a climate defender and celebrating its first successes. Low carbon cities could be a key factor for climate protection.
Anita Engels is a Professor of Sociology at Universität Hamburg.

China plays a key role in the fight against global warming – a consistent climate protection policy, ideally without any noticeable disadvantages for the population, could mitigate climate change. The country’s potential as a climate protector is undisputed – and the government’s goals are ambitious: by 2020 it aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 65 percent compared to 2005, and increase the proportion of renewable energy to 15 percent. Energy saving has become part of the country’s planned economy and emissions trading has been introduced in a number of provinces.

But how far has China’s transition to an environmentally friendly economy progressed in reality? Together with a Chinese visiting scientist at the Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability, I have looked into this question. To do so, we first analyzed and summarized all the current research findings in the field. That’s not as easy as it sounds: the studies often can’t be compared because they approach the problem in completely different ways.  But the results made our efforts worthwhile: we gained entirely new insights and are now better able to identify significant developments.

Research on climate protection in China mainly focuses on three areas: low-emission cities, technologies and industry, and changes in energy systems. For all three areas it is clear that China has not yet been successful. Economic growth is still coupled with increasing greenhouse gas emissions.  Significant success would require fundamental changes in industry, where the energy-intensive steel and iron sectors are responsible for high emissions levels. In addition, energy providers would need to do without electricity from fossil fuels like coal. 

Our further research shows that China has taken advantage of the gap created by the USA opting out of the Paris Climate Agreement to present itself as a “doer.” At the same time pressure is growing within China: dependence on oil imports, unreliable energy supplies, and above all the high levels of air pollution are prompting more and more civil protests. The government is following this development closely, since protests can become a serious threat to them. They intend to use a more secure energy supply and the introduction of renewable energy sources to defuse the situation. And this benefits the climate – as a side effect.

Our study shows: climate protection pays off for China because it also has a positive effect on other national interests. We are now investigating how climate protection as a “side effect” of necessary changes could be possible in Germany. Next year we will see the first findings from a project in Hamburg’s Lokstedt district: together with residents we are looking for ways to make the city a better place to live, and at the same time more climate friendly.

This content was first published as a guest article in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on 11th October 2017.

Anita Engels is a Professor of Sociology at Universität Hamburg. 

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