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Combating Climate Change: China Goes on the Offensive
2007-09-18 00:00

   Chinese President Hu Jintao and a group of other state leaders were pictured wearing open-necked shirts with short sleeves, rather than their normal jackets and ties when attending a high-profile conference at the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee on June 25 of this year.

   The less formal attire wasn't just for their own comfort. China's leaders are trying to set an example for all the office workers to dress in light, casual clothing in summer in order to reduce the use of air conditioners. The State Council, or cabinet, ordered in June that air-conditioning units in most office buildings be set no cooler than 26 degrees Celsius.

   (The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion reactor, which replicates the energy generating process of the sun, was tested at the Institute of Plasma Physics under the Chinese  Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Hefei, capital of east China's Anhui Province in February 2006. )

   "As a developing country, China tries to shoulder more responsibilities in addressing the issue of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions," says Lu Xuedu, deputy director of the Global Environmental Affairs Office of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

   In China's National Climate Change Program issued on June 4, the government pledged to restructure the economy, promote clean energy technologies and improve energy efficiency.

   With the new program, the nation has opted not to hide behind the fact that the Kyoto Protocol frees developing countries from the obligation to reduce GHG emissions, said Ma Kai, minister in charge of the National Development and Reform Commission.

An Imminent Threat

   "Climate change has begun to take its toll in China in recent years, and we shouldn't wait till it is too late to take action," says Lu Xuedu.

   Since the mid-1980s, China has experienced 19 warm winters. In 2006, the average temperature for winter hit 9.92 degrees Celsius, the highest since 1951, according to statistics from the National Meteorological Center.

   Lu points out that if climate change remains unchecked, the output of China's major crops including wheat, rice and corn will drop by up to 37 percent in the second half of this century. Global warming will also reduce the river levels, and lead to more droughts and floods. And water supply in western China will fall short of demand by up to 20 billion cubic meters from 2010 to 2030.

   Climate change also presents a major threat to ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, says Qin Dahe, an expert in glaciers, who is also an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

   "The glaciers on the plateau have been melting faster in recent decades," he said.

   If the speed of the temperature rise fails to slow down, he warns, the total area of glaciers on the plateau will shrink to 100,000 square kilometres in 2030 from 500,000 square kilometres in 1995.

   Since many major rivers in Asia come from the plateau, this shrinkage might result in water shortages for more than one billion people in Asia.

   Liu Jingshi, a researcher with the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research Institute of the CAS, adds the plateau has also softened as global warming melts the permafrost.

   Liu says that the melting permafrost has already flooded some of the Tibetan herdsmen's families, and will become even more dangerous to them if the temperature continues to rise.

International Collaborations

   The per-capita emissions of greenhouse gas in China stand at 3.66 tons, less than one third the level of developed nations such as the Netherlands, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang at a press conference in late June.

   As a developing country, China is not obliged to meet targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, under which most industrialized countries are required to reduce gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below the 1990 levels from 2008 to 2012.

    Despite low per-capita emissions, Qin says, the Chinese government has placed great emphasis on climate change and has employed effective measures to cut emissions and their negative impacts.

   The spokesman called on the international community to strengthen cooperation and help more countries embark on the road of clean development that both protects the environment and eco-systems and ensures the fulfilment of their development goals.

   "China is still in the process of industrialization, and has the potential to become one of the world's leaders in reducing GHG if proper technologies can be adopted before the industrial facilities are built," said Dr Jason Blackstock, a researcher at Harvard University.

   He says that developed nations should also take the responsibility to help China and other developing countries by providing the advanced technologies needed for reducing GHG through international collaborations.

Finding Alternatives

   To actively address the issue of climate change, China released the National Climate Change Program.

   It is estimated if all the objectives prescribed in the program are achieved – on hydro and nuclear power generation, upgrading of thermal power generation, facilitation of coal-bed-gas development, the use of renewable energy resources such as wind power, solar power and terrestrial heat, forestation and energy-saving – the world's most populous country will emit 1.5 billion tons less carbon dioxide by 2010 while still continuing to grow rapidly.

   China also issued the General Work Plan for Energy Conservation and Pollutant Discharge Reduction, under which the government pledged to adhere to its plan for energy efficiency and to reduce major pollutant discharges by 10 percent by the year 2010.

   The work plan criticized some government departments for their poor awareness of the importance of energy efficiency and pollutant reduction.

   The central government will reform the mechanism of evaluating local governments and their leaders by including the implementations of energy-efficiency and emission-reduction tasks into their performances, according to the work plan.

   It also contains instructions to government departments to work out detailed measures for this reform.

   Units, branches and bodies of the central government are asked to take the lead in procuring energy-efficient, water-efficient and environment-friendly products, such as air conditioners, computers, printers and displays.

   The state will encourage and direct financial institutions to enhance credit support for environment-protection and pollution-reduction projects. Preferential tax policies will be offered for such projects.

   The government will also reform pricing mechanisms for resource products, such as refined oil, natural gas and electricity, and restrict exports of high-energy consuming and heavy-polluting products.

   Energy use in high-energy consuming industries, such as steel, non-ferrous metals, petrochemicals and cement production, will be optimised to realize energy-saving targets of 50 million tons of standard coal in 2007 and 240 million tons by 2010.

   The government has also taken action to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

   Non-fossil fuels will account for 30 percent of China's energy consumption in 2050, compared with the current 10 percent, says Yan Luguang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

   Even though China's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are lower than countries like the United States or Australia, its heavy reliance on coal makes it a major polluter and a major contributor to emissions that cause climate change.

   By 2050, the burning of coal will account for a much smaller proportion in China's energy consumption compared with 70 percent now, says Yan.

   Oil consumption would contribute around 20 percent of the total and reach 800 million tons in 2050, 75 percent of which would be imported from foreign countries.

   As China's energy demands continue to grow, a sufficient oil supply is critical to the country's energy security.

   The demand for natural gas, hydropower and nuclear power will grow and by 2050 solar energy, wind energy and biomass energy will account for 15 percent of the nation's total energy consumption.

Scientific Support

   Aiming for a green and hi-tech 2008 Olympics, China has designed the Olympic venues to be as environment friendly as possible, with "green" materials, and energy saving and water recycling systems.

   The Olympic stadiums have also introduced solar and wind energy and other new energies, which are vital in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

   The Ministry of Science and Technology and 14 other government departments in June jointly issued a special action plan for science and technology for China to deal with climate change, providing scientific support to the National Climate Change Program.

   China invested 2.5 billion yuan (330 million U.S. dollars) in the research and development for climate change control during its 10th Five-Year Plan period (2001-2005).

   In the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010), says Minister of Science and Technology Wang Gang, the government will more in this field, with 4.6 billion yuan (610 million U.S. dollars) already put into a number of projects.

   The nation must consider developing a "low-carbon economy" and a "carbon-absorbing economy", says Wang. A low-carbon economy is a low energy-consuming and low pollution-based economy.

   Other methods, such as optimising energy structure, improving energy efficiency and developing clean and renewable energy, should also be taken to deal with the climate change, he says.

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