Like the other 194 delegate nations, China made ambitious promises to reduce its carbon footprint at last month’s COP21 meeting in Paris. However, in China’s case it’s becoming a case of ‘do or die’ as its climate turns increasingly toxic.


Last month’s historic COP21 summit in Paris set a new record for the most world leaders in one place. The resulting agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and contain global warming to within two degrees centigrade relative to pre-industrial levels is already being hailed as one of the great diplomatic success stories of our time. But while much will rely on the rigour with which individual signatories pursue this ambitious target, nowhere is the need for change more immediately apparent than in China, which faces a multi-faceted public health crisis due to its increasingly hostile climate.

In recent times, China’s leadership has made conspicuous efforts to be seen to be addressing the issue. In November 2014, China and the US – the world’s two biggest carbon emitters – signed up to a joint initiative, the US-China Climate Leaders Declaration, in which 24 provinces, states, cities and counties committed to establish climate mitigation action plans post-2020 and to enhance co-operation and leadership. The two countries also stressed the important role businesses have to play in promoting low-carbon development.

Last year also saw China’s government pass updated pollution laws requiring all levels of government to optimise and reduce coal use and promote clean energy, while its leaders promised to launch a national carbon trading system as early as 2017. Even so, China has a mountain to climb.

China’s cities are choking on the air they breathe while in the country residents face the prospect of being poisoned by the water they drink

Something in the air

China’s signing of the COP21 agreement in December was sandwiched between two ‘red alert’ smog warnings stretching from Xian, through Beijing and up into Shenyang and the Harbin region in China's northeast. The capital was also cloaked in smog for much of November, prompting many to recall the so-called “airpocalypse” seen in 2012. The newly introduced red alerts were triggered when air contaminants were ten times the safe level indicated by the World Health Organisation and entailed school and construction site closures, a number plate-based system to halve car traffic and advice to wear masks and stay indoors to avoid the toxic shroud.

Although some climate change observers dismissed the alerts as a cynical negotiating tactic in the run up to COP21, the truth is that China is literally choking on the emissions from its coal-driven power plants. According to a recent academic study1, air pollution kills a chilling 1.6 million Chinese a year, or around 4,400 people a day, with more than a third of China forced to regularly breathe air categorised in the West as “unhealthy”. This makes breathing China’s air second only to smoking in terms of mortality rates associated with air pollution. A recent survey also highlighted the marked increase in average birth weights for children lucky enough to have been born during the pollution clamp down that accompanied the Beijing Olympics in 20082.

Meanwhile, cancer has become the leading cause of death in China thanks chiefly to environmental factors. Half of the world’s recorded instances of liver cancer now occur in China. It is especially prevalent among Chinese men thanks to an estimated 130 million Chinese people believed to be carrying the hepatitis B virus. At the same time, breast cancer has grown to become the number one killer of Chinese women3.

Paying the piper

After decades of untrammelled economic expansion, China’s climate is picking up the tab. Emission levels have mostly been ignored until now and there are few signs that Chinese industry has ever been constrained by environmental concerns. As a result, while China’s city dwellers are choking on their air, those living in rural China risk being poisoned by their water.

Back in 2011, China’s ministry of environmental protection finally admitted to the existence of so-called ‘cancer villages’ in its Twelfth Five Year Plan. These are the 450 or so villages across China where early onset cancer has become a part of everyday life thanks chiefly to industrial water pollution. This is an issue which continues to attract international attention at a time when official statistics suggest that almost two-thirds of China’s groundwater and a third of its surface water are now “unfit for human contact”4.

In recent years, China’s government has promised huge investment into rural waterways and an array of nationwide clean-up projects, although the emphasis still seems to be on treatment rather than prevention.

Its leadership has also vowed to crack down on air pollution. In June last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement: “China’s carbon dioxide emissions will peak by around 2030 and China will work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date.”

Based on its record for penalising polluters, however, reform represents a monumental task. For example, most of Beijing’s throngs of delivery trucks carry no pollution control devices of any sort. Although legislation to prosecute both drivers and manufacturers has been on the statute books for more than a decade, not a single prosecution has resulted.

A lack of breathing space

The picture is little different across the regions, where enforcement of environmental legislation tends to vary in line with the illicit pay outs made by local businesses. Recently, China’s minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, vowed to punish agencies and officials for any failure to implement a pollution emergency response plan. Shortly thereafter, police arrested ten company officials from a variety of businesses for fabricating their pollution data in order to hinder environmental checks.

However, China will have to make a great deal more progress in combating corruption if it is to make any real headway with detoxifying its climate. It will also have to live up to its external promises. Until now, China has had a poor record here. Since 1992, it has only provided the United Nations with two so-called ‘national communications’ reports that detail its emissions and what it is doing to limit them. Its latest report came in 2012 and contained only 2005 emissions data.

It will have to do better if it is to meet its new commitments. But the early signs are encouraging. The COP21 conference in Paris differentiated itself from its predecessors in two important ways. The first was in requiring delegates to submit a list of emissions pledges – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – in advance of the conference.

In China’s case, its submission included a target for CO2 emissions to peak by 2030, to lower the carbon intensity of GDP to around 65 per cent below 2005 levels, to increase non-fossil fuel energy carriers to account for 20 per cent of primary supply and to increase its forest stock by 4.5 billion cubic metres against 2005 levels. This in itself represents great progress.

The rub lies in how it chooses to address the second major commitment levied in Paris – namely the ‘ratcheting’ provisions that have created a powerful mechanism to increase each country’s carbon-cutting commitments over time. Article Four of the agreement requires each member nation to return with stronger carbon-cutting plans every five years while Article 13 provides a transparency agreement aimed at ensuring that no cheating takes place.

Smoke and mirrors?

From our perspective, we welcome the increasing evidence that curbing carbon emissions is moving up the agenda in China and although the immediate focus may be on improving air quality, total carbon output will also be impacted. The September 2015 climate leaders summit included 11 Chinese provinces and cities in China setting out timelines for reducing CO2 emissions before the national target of 2030 and while its Twelfth Five Year Plan set out specific targets for energy efficiency and environmental protection, its thirteenth – due this year – is expected to include more detail on a national emissions trading scheme.

Meanwhile, last month also saw China take over from Turkey as chair of the G20 nations. It is set to host the next G20 conference in Hangzhou in September where sustainable development is expected to be a key talking point. Recently, the People’s Bank of China participated in the UNEP Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System, an area where our own research has already helped to shape the debate. China’s government has also launched the CCICED Green Finance Task Force to engage on areas such as behavioural change, fiscal and tax incentives and green investment. So far, the early signs are promising, with considerable attention being given to issues such as corporate sustainability reporting and sustainable stock exchanges.

However, this year’s G20 conference presents China with its best opportunity to move climate change up the agenda. Whether it does so or not will say a lot about its commitment to the issue. Currently, China is still a long way from putting the needs of the environment before those of industry. Until it does so, its climate will continue to suffer.

1 Source: Berkeley Earth – Air pollution in China: Mapping of concentrations and sources by Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller.

2 Source: Differences in birth weight associated with the 2008 Beijing Olympics air pollution reduction: results from a natural experiment. Lead author David Q Rich.

3 Source: 

4 Source: Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection report June 2015