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Time for China to live up to its pledges on climate change

With the Trump administration sitting on the sidelines as the planet continues to warm, the world needs a more deeply committed Beijing.

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EVERY year, China burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and every year since 2009, more cars have been sold there than in any other country. This has left its cities choking on poisoned air and has been responsible for an estimated one million premature deaths a year.

But since 2014, China has been waging a "war on pollution", and this campaign has begun to show results. Last year, levels of particulate pollution in Beijing dropped by more than 20 per cent over the previous year.

The politics of this was obvious. The country's leadership was worried that its citizens simply wouldn't tolerate air so polluted that it can be difficult on some days in some cities to see through the soupy, acrid haze to the buildings across the street.

But China has shown less determination to corral its runaway emissions of carbon dioxide, the colourless, odourless gas that is principally responsible for the warming of the planet. A warming planet, after all, doesn't present the same palpable and immediate threat to people's daily lives that toxic air does.

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Last year, China produced 27 per cent of the global emissions of this greenhouse gas, and its emissions are expected to rise by nearly 5 per cent by the end of this year, according to new research just released by scientists with the Global Carbon Project. The United States is second on that list, accounting for 15 per cent of the world's emissions - though China is quick to point out that its emissions per capita remain less than half of those of the US.

With the Trump administration unwilling to confront climate change, the world needs a more deeply committed China. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the present rate, by 2040, coastlines will be inundated, droughts and floods will intensify and food shortages will be widespread.

So the world is facing an immense challenge, made much more difficult by an American president who believes coal, oil and gas are the fuels that will drive America's return to greatness.

Fortunately, there is no climate change denier movement in China. Political leaders and scientific experts there agree that the planet is warming, that the warming is owing to human activity, that China is responsible for much of it, and that the country is already experiencing its effects, including glacier retreat in the Qinghai-Tibet region and drought in the Hai, Yellow and Huai river areas.

That's why, in recent years, China has appeared to be taking the global warming crisis more seriously. It helped shape the Paris climate agreement in 2015, and it helped gather support for it from reluctant countries. It has pledged that by 2030, it will begin decreasing its use of coal, cut carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 15 per cent from 2005 levels, increase non-fossil fuel sources of energy to 20 per cent of the country's total primary energy mix, and increase forest cover by up to 247 million acres, roughly four times the size of the United Kingdom.

These measures will help bring down greenhouse gas emissions. So too will some of the measures that Beijing has already taken in its "war on pollution": shuttering coal power plants, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy development, especially wind and solar, introducing a nationwide carbon emissions trading program and heavily subsidising the production and purchase of electric vehicles.

But China can do more. The planet depends on it. For one, it must stop financing and building coal-fired power plants around the world. China has made reducing coal production and consumption a high priority at home, but Chinese energy companies are behind more than 200 new coal-fired power plants around the world that are either planned or under construction.

Fighting a "war on pollution" and calling for "building an ecological civilisation" at home while promoting the use of dirty coal in less developed countries makes China look hypocritical, even colonial. Instead, Beijing can and should be exporting the renewable energy technology that it has been so aggressively developing. With this clean energy, underdeveloped countries could leapfrog the outworn development model that sacrifices environmental well-being for economic growth.

It also must quickly expand its nationwide carbon emissions trading system. China introduced the largest carbon market in the world in 2017-18, using a market-driven approach to push down emissions. But Beijing is moving cautiously. Thus far, its application of the trading system has been largely limited to the power sector, which covers about 30 per cent of China's total carbon emissions. This market should be extended to other heavy industries - especially chemical, iron, steel and aviation - no later than 2020.

The country must also figure out how to maximise its wind and solar capacity, the largest in the world. A good deal of it now goes unused - a situation known as curtailment. In 2016, for instance, 17 per cent of China's total wind capacity was curtailed, and in some provinces, that figure was much higher.

Solar curtailment nationwide was nearly 20 per cent. That's a lot of waste. Much of this has to do with an inadequate power grid that can't transmit the additional power. But the government needs as well to enforce its policy of giving renewable sources priority access to the grid (so-called green dispatch) ahead of coal and other fossil fuels.

And, finally, Beijing should set 2030 as the year for ending the production and sale of all petrol and diesel powered cars and trucks, and replacing them with electric vehicles powered by renewable energy. All of these measures are within Beijing's reach and are achievable within just a few years.

We live in a world in which global mistrust of China is widespread, and with ample reason: the military build-up in the South China Sea, the mass internment of Uighurs, human rights abuses, the disregard for intellectual property rights and more. But that mistrust shouldn't blind us to the reality that in fighting climate change, the nations of the world are on the same side. We should cheer China on whenever it takes steps to reduce carbon emissions - especially as the Trump administration sits by idly. NYTIMES

  • The writer is a history professor at Smith College, where he specialises in Chinese intellectual history and the environment in China.