Q&A  | 

China’s climate challenge: coal and a mindset shift with Yao Zhe

"Coal and other types of fossil fuels count for more than 80% of China’s energy consumption, the transition to neutral energy is indeed critical to China’s climate action".

Tags: 'Asia' 'China' 'Climate change' 'Paris Agreement' 'Sostenibilidad'


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Based in Beijing, Yao Zhe works with China Dialogue, a global network of communications experts to facilitate dialogues between scientists and the public on climate change, and to promote understanding between China and the rest of the world on the same issue.

"Our ultimate goal is to improve public awareness that can be a solid foundation for ambitious climate policies", she says.

DFS has interviewed Zhe on the subject of China's main challenges regarding climate change and carbon neutrality. China has the technology, she says, and now needs to figure out how to minimize the social impact of abandoning fossil fueled energy, which accounts for 80% of the total.

Which are the main reasons for China adhering to the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is a major achievement of multilateral climate cooperation, the Chinese government clearly understands the political importance of supporting it and the spirit of multilateralism that the Paris Agreement stands for.

More importantly, seeing the economy developed at the cost of environment in the past decades, China’s leadership now considers that tackling climate change is in China’s own interest – it will bring clean air and improved public health, it will lead to more a stable climate for next generations, and it will create a market for clean technologies and services, which is expected to be the new engine of economic development and job growth.

What’s the stance of Chinese society towards the Paris Agreement?

A 2017 survey showed that the scientific basis of climate change is widely accepted by the Chinese public, and the vast majority of the public supported the Paris Agreement and climate action.

However, what the survey numbers didn’t show is that the public’s knowledge of climate change and the Paris Agreement remained very limited. Many people simply choose to follow the government’s official position without understanding the science or being aware of the implications.

After the announcement of China’s 2060 carbon neutrality goal, there has been increasing media discussions on climate policies and economic transition, which gives hope that the public’s awareness and the society’s consensus will continue to grow.

China has nevertheless set some climate related goals following the 14th Five Year Plan period, 2021-2025, drafted after the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

In fact, 19th Central Committee only issued a guidance for the formulation of the 14th Five-Year Plan, the goals for economic development and climate will be revealed during the National People’s Congress in early March.

There will be targets for economic growth, energy consumption, renewable energy development, carbon intensity of the economy, which will set the tone for China’s low-carbon transition in the next five years.

In your article ‘Climate and Energy in China’s 14th Five Year Plan – the signals so far’ you mention that “Unlike most nations that have committed to carbon neutrality, China’s economy is still growing rapidly [...] Yet moving from a peak to zero emissions will take China around 30 years less than already-developed nations”. How will that be achieved? Which will the role of technology be in the process?

Transferring to an economy driven by clean industries, that is key. China is a leader on several clean technologies such as solar, wind power, and electric vehicles, the market is also growing both within and outside of China. It’s proven that clean industries can be the major driver for economic growth and job creation.

The economic transition in China has already started, especially in the power and transport sectors, the transition will need to accelerate and expand to more sectors including industry and agriculture.

Moreover, the development of clean industries also means falling costs of low-carbon solutions, which is vital to realizing the carbon neutrality goal. Comparing with developed countries, the time is shorter for China to reach emissions peak and carbon neutrality, but low-carbon technologies are more available and much cheaper now, which is an advantage that China should and can seize.

Given China’s strong reliance on coal as its largest consumer and producer in the world, will the transition to neutral energy sources be especially critical and challenging?

Coal and other types of fossil fuels count for more than 80% of China’s energy consumption, the transition to neutral energy is indeed critical to China’s climate action. The transition is also a challenging process, but that’s not because of technological constraints – we have almost all the technologies needed for the transition.

A more prominent challenge is the costs, economically and socially, of the transition.

Given the fast deployment of renewable energy and falling prices of clean energy sources, it’s reasonable to think that the economic costs of energy transition will gradually become less of a concern. However, millions of employees are still working in fossil fuel industries in China, how to ensure their well-being and fair treatment while accelerating the energy transition, is the single largest challenge that China will need to deal with in the process.

How important is the mindset shift for the changes needed and how can it be achieved?

We’ll need more than just technology to reverse environmental degradation. Technology apparently offers us the means to tackle the environmental challenges, but how and where to apply technologies needs to be guided. Technologies might be used in a wrong place and in a wrong way – thinking about those controversial geo-engineering technologies.

Moreover, not all the problems can be resolved just by technology, sometimes they also require a mindset shift or a lifestyle change. For example, although cleaner products are available, consumers still need to be convinced or motivated to choose the clean alternatives when buying air-conditioners, heaters and lightbulbs.

In my opinion, good governance at domestic and international levels, technological advancements and public participation, all are needed. We’ll need efforts from different parts in the society and create a joint force, only in that way we can find the way out of the environmental crisis that facing us.