Su Wei, China’s lead climate negotiator, said that while “climate change is still a sensitive issue” in the United States, China is “serious about climate change. We mean what we say,” at the kick-off of the World Resources Institute (WRI) – National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) partnership focused on creating low-carbon cities in China, Brazil, and India. Funded by Caterpillar, the partnership will include a study tour by China’s lead climate negotiators of the U.S. Su Wei said “what’s happening at the state level in the U.S. is very interesting.” The team will also examine California’s new carbon trading system to see if similar models can be implemented in China’s provinces.
Clayton Lane, Global Lead, WRI Sustainable Cities Initiative, said by 2030 more than one billion people will live in China’s cities, with some 40 percent being new residents. Their lifestyle choices, consumption habits, energy and transportation use are incredibly important. Lane argued that with China’s new cities, the state of the world may hang in the balance: How Chinese urban residents consume has enormous implications for the rest of us. He added that “city design matters a lot.” As an example, he pointed to Toronto, where the outer sprawl suburbs have residents who average 13 tons of CO2 emissions annually, while those in denser suburbs average 6.6 (almost half), and those in the inner-core average just 1.3 tons. “The structure of cities has a huge impact.”
The way cities are designed also has a impact on health. New York City, which has the lowest per-capita level of CO2 emissions in the U.S., also has the highest longevity rates. “NYC residents live longer and are safer than elsewhere in the U.S.” The point is that New Yorkers walk more, and sprawled out communities have higher traffic fatalities.
The questions for WRI were then: Can China set the example? Can China leapfrog past bad models established in the U.S. and Europe and be the leader in low carbon development?
Su Wei argued that China is making some progress. The 2006-2010 national development plan put climate change front and center. The country set energy intensity targets: 20 percent reduction by 2020. China has “achieved those targets,” which means some 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions were avoided. The new 5-year plan calls for low-carbon development. “We want to become a conservation society, and have green, sustainable development as our guiding principle.”
New policies will focus on mitigation, which will involve restructuring the economy, boosting energy conservation and efficiency, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels to 11.4 percent by 2020. “We are also investing in increasing forest coverage, enhancing our carbon sinks.” A second focus area is technological innovation. China is already investing heavily in research and development, and creating a new “low-carbon product labeling system” to raise awareness among the public. Lastly, China is looking to “market mechanisms” like cap and trade systems to “mainstream climate considerations.” As for climate change adaptation, China is initiating programs to preserve freshwater and agricultural and forest lands, and protect coastal development.
Zou Ji, WRI’s China Country Director, said China is still a developing country, with some 50 percent of the population living in rural areas, where “living standards are still poor,” so the country still faces major challenges in implementing its broad vision. While there has been massive growth, the levels of industrial efficiency are still “very low.” Coupled with these inefficiences are the “increasing constraints of limited energy and natural resources.” Any policy for China will have to accomodate “diverse provincial development levels and natural endowments.” WRI is working with Chengdu and Qingdao, two cities exploring low-carbon development.
China can look to U.S. states as decent models and Germany as an excellent model. Given the U.S. seems stuck on climate change legislation, the U.S. may move towards a regulatory approach to reduce emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) has executive powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and may start using them. Jennifer Morgan, Director, Climate and Energy Program, WRI, said she spoke with Chinese climate change negotiators who were very surprised the “U.S. is moving towards a regulatory path.” She said the Obama administration has moved on reducing car and truck-based emissions, which will mean 2 million metric tons of CO2 reduced and 4 million barrels of oil not bought. California is moving forward with its own cap and trade system, and a number of states are working on making renewable energy as competitive as fossil fuels.
Nevertheless, Germany may have some better answers: The country has shut down 7 nuclear reactors out of safety concerns, but is still on track to achieve zero carbon emissions and 60 percent renewable energy use by 2050. There, “feed-in tariffs work” to boost renewable energy use, and there has been heavy investment in a new smart grid, along with progress towards creating a central agency to manage it.
Still, China won’t be able to reduce CO2 emissions unless it also comes up with a robust sustainable transportation strategy. The UNFCCC offers data showing that 23 percent of global emissions are related to transportation. “If we can’t tackle transportation, we can’t tackle climate change,” said Holger Dalkmann, Director, EMBARQ, WRI’s Sustainable Transportation group. At a per-capita basis worldwide, “we need 0.5 tons per year.” However, in large part due to cars, the U.S. is already at 6 tons annually per person and Germany is at 2 tons or more. Reducing car use will not only benefit the environment, but also save lives: Some 1.3 million people die in traffic fatalities each year worldwide.
China is already doing the best in the world on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a model of sustainable urban transportation invented by Jaime Lerner, when he was Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil (see an interview). “China now has 10 BRT systems, and the largest in the world.”
But to avoid the bigger, most costly mistakes made by the U.S. and Europe, where there are far-flung suburbs that create sprawl, China will need to undertake three approaches, said Dalkmann: Avoid, which means reduce the distance or number of car trips; Shift, which involves turning towards modes of transportation with lower CO2 emissions like biking and walking or public transit; and Improve, which relates to investing in systems that not only provide mobility but also improve health, quality of life, and energy efficiency.
As one World Bank official in the audience noted, though, urban cores with BRT systems are nice, but they often lead to fast-rising rents, which push out the urban poor to the suburbs where there are no good transportation options. Affordability in dense urban cores is expected to be as big of a problem in China as it is in the U.S.
Image credit: BRT System, Guangzhou, China / Metro Magazine