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How is China working to tackle deforestation? The nation implemented the Great Green Wall of China project in 1978 to hold back the expansion of the Gobi Desert and provide timber to the local population. A quarter of all landmass is desert in China, which until recently was rapidly expanding. Some causes and impacts of desertification include include “aeolian desertification,” caused by wind erosion after vegetation is destroyed, “water and soil loss,” caused by water erosion mainly distributed in the Loess plateau, “salinisation,” caused by poor water management and “rock desertification,” mainly occurring in the Karst region of Southwestern China. 

Desertification in China

Research shows that currently 27.4% of land in China has undergone desertification, affecting about 400 million people. 

Feng Wang, associate professor at the institute of Desertification Studies at the Chinese Academy of Forestry states, “The main problem [China faces] is an oversized population living in the drylands that surpasses the ecological carrying and restoring capacity of this area.” However, this problem isn’t just unique to China. According to a 2013 report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification, land degradation and droughts have accelerated globally, especially during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, particularly in areas that are prone to arid, semi- arid and dry sub – humid climates. It adds that throughout the past 40 years, the Earth has lost a third of its arable land, mostly to erosion and degradation. 

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great green wall of china

What Is the Great Green Wall of China?

The Great Green Wall project is expected to continue until 2050 and aims to plant around 88 million acres of forests in a wall stretching about 3 000 miles and as wide as 900 miles in some places. The government has subsidised and added numerous major afforestation projects in more recent years, resulting in the biggest tree-planting project in human history. 

The results have so far been satisfactory, as thousands of acres of moving dunes have been stabilised and the frequency of sandstorms nationwide fell by one-fifth between 2009 and 2014. 

However, some experts are more skeptical. Jennifer L. Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the D.C- based Woodrow Wilson Center, says, “with the Great Green Wall, people are planting lots of trees in big ceremonies to stem desertification, but then later no one really takes care of them and they die.”

Precisely speaking, many of the trees that are planted in areas where they do not grow naturally simply perish after a few years. Those that do survive can soak up a lot of the groundwater that the native grasses and shrubs need, causing more soil degradation. If afforestation continually exceeds the land’s carrying capacity, it will lead the trees to an eventual death. Thus it is difficult to determine whether or not the the China Green Wall is helping or hurting local ecosystems; a 2014 study of China’s major trees planting programmes by a group of American and Chinese scientists concluded that “the extent to which the programmes have changed local ecological and socioeconomic conditions are still poorly understood, as local statistics are often not available or unreliable.” 

Scientists predict that desertification will continue to increase as the Earth’s climate changes, proposing the withdrawal of human action and giving the ecosystem enough time to restore itself in the future.

You might also like: The Great Green Wall is Failing, But its Legacy Could Still Be A Success

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons 

National air pollution action plans devised by China have seen significant reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks.

China has lifted millions out of poverty like no other country on the planet. The price of that economic progress is demonstrated in the air pollution that has caused a public health crisis, killing more than 1.1 million people every year. It has also proved costly for the nation as the economy suffers an annual loss of $37 billion due to pollution-induced crop failure. 

China Air Pollution Solutions

After Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’ sparked a mass outpouring of anger and frustration among citizens, China set out to clean up the air quality of its cities. The government prohibited new coal-fired power plants and shut down a number of old plants in the most polluted regions including city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas. Large cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou restricted the number of cars on the road and started introducing all-electric bus fleets. The country reduced its iron-and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.  

The government also introduced aggressive afforestation and reforestation programmes like the Great Green Wall and planted more than 35 billion trees across 12 provinces. With investments of over $100 billion in such programmes, China’s forestry expenditure per hectare exceeded that of the US and Europe and became three times higher than the global average.

The Air Pollution Action Plan released in September 2013 became China’s most influential environmental policy. It helped the nation to make significant improvements in its air quality between 2013 and 2017, reducing PM2.5 levels (atmospheric particulate matter) by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. In Beijing, this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. The city achieved an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³– a drop of 35%.

But even so, no cities reached the World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM2.5 level of 10µg/m³. And as of the end of 2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities of prefectural level or higher had reached the WHO’s interim standard of 35µg/m³.

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China air pollution
China declared war on smog and launched a five-year national air quality action plan in 2013.

As part of the second phase of its battle against air pollution, in 2018, China introduced its Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War.

While the 2013 Action Plan only set PM2.5 level targets for the city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas, the new three-year Action Plan applies to all the cities in China. It mandates at least an 18% reduction in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline in as many as 231 cities that have not yet reached the government standard- an average of 35µg/m³.

The previous plan had not addressed a primary pollutant that made the air deadly in many cities: ground-level ozone- highly irritating gas created by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) reacting with nitrogen oxides released from vehicles. Although ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth by blocking solar radiation, it is extremely toxic in the troposphere and could cause asthma and respiratory tract infections among residents. The new action plan focuses more on ozone pollution as it adds targets for both VOCs and nitrogen oxides: emissions reductions of 10% and 15%, respectively, by 2020. 

The air quality over major Chinese cities has improved as of the beginning of 2020, a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan in the Hubei Province that saw the nation embark on the largest lockdown measures in the world. A drop in industrial and economic activities resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality in Wuhan over the Chinese New Year, as well as Beijing, Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region. However, emissions will no doubt rise again once the pandemic subsides.

Air pollution levels in major cities in China at the turn of this century were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890. But China cleaned up its air twice as fast as the United Kingdom did after the Great Smog of postwar London killed 8 000 people.

Recent research suggests that China’s fight against air pollution has laid the foundations for extraordinary gains in the country’s life expectancy. The average citizen can now expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persist.

Water underpins a country’s development, and China- one of the fastest-growing economies- is of no exception. Water supports the country’s 1.43 billion population and its booming industries, but it is limited and unevenly distributed. In 2005, Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao warned of the danger of water shortages which he said would threaten the ‘very survival of the Chinese nation’. Climate change is diminishing accessible water resources in China, triggering a severe water shortage crisis within the national boundary. Massive water projects are being constructed to deal with this shortage crisis, bringing a new range of environmental, social and geopolitical challenges.

Home to 20% of the global population, China has only 6% of the world’s total freshwater resources. 2014 statistics from the World Bank indicate that the total renewable water resources per inhabitant is only 2 018 cubic meters each year- 75% less than the global average. 

Causes of the Water Shortage Crisis in China

Climate change plays a key role in the water shortage crisis in China. For thousands of years, civilisations along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers fed on the glacial meltwater from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau – also known as ‘The Third Pole’. Once a stable source of river flow, the ice mass is now less capable of supplying glacial melt with fresh snow and ice, since global warming has raised the temperature of the glacial region by 3- 3.5 degrees Celsius over the past half-century. A study by Greenpeace in 2018 revealed that 82% of China’s glaciers have retreated and more than one-fifth of the ice cover has disappeared since the 1950s. Consequently, glacial run-off into the Yangtze alone has been reduced by 13.9% since the 1990s, lessening freshwater availability. Greenpeace anticipates the shortage will become ‘dramatically’ acute when the glaciers reach their ‘peak water’- when the rate of water consumption surpasses water supply- which could happen as early as 2030.

Meanwhile, increasing temperatures have also changed atmospheric circulation. It has become more difficult for humid summer monsoons to reach northern and inland areas, resulting in more unreliable rainfall patterns. This abnormally dry weather has been experienced by Beijing in recent years: between October 2017 and February 2018, no precipitation, including rain and snow, was recorded in the metropolis. The 116-day drought is unprecedented in the country’s record. 

The country’s uneven resource distribution further exacerbates the scarcity problem: 80% of water is concentrated in South China, but the North is the core of national development. For instance, President Xi Jingping’s JingJinJi Project initiated in 2014 integrates three heavily industrialised Northern provinces- Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei- as a single megalopolis to compete with other world-class economic regions such as the New York Tri-State Area. The estimated population of the regions combined is 130 million, whereas the water available for consumption annually per person in the three provinces stands below 184 cubic meters (Hubei is below 100) as illustrated by the China Statistical Yearbook (CSY), far below the 500 cubic meter standard of water scarcity. Water is insufficient in the North and intense development is only putting more pressure on water demand. 

The combination of inefficient water management and widespread water pollution has rendered China unable to effectively supply enough consumable water in some provinces; this is not taking into consideration the demand for water in future urbanisation. 

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Earth.org tackling China's water shortage crisis

A graph illustrating that renewable water resources in China have been steadily declining since the 1960s (Source: Knoema). 

The Solutions to the China Water Shortage Crisis

The pressing water shortage crisis has forced China to develop various water schemes to boost water availability in dry regions; the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) is arguably the most well-known. With its conceptualisation traced back to the 1950s, the project is the largest and most expensive engineering work in the country; it is expected to cost $62 billion by completion in 2050, almost double the Three Gorges Dam Project. 

The SNWTP aims to alleviate the water shortage problem in northern China by moving water from the Yangtze River in the South through 1 500 kilometre-long canals. The East and Middle routes- each taking 10 years to build- have been in service since 2013 and 2014 respectively and are capable of transferring 20.9 billion cubic meters of water each year. The West Route is expected to be completed by 2050. 

However, the project opens the door to environmental, social and geopolitical challenges. 

New Environment Problems

As construction advances across the country, natural landscapes are harmed, leading to biodiversity loss. All three routes will change natural hydrology on an unprecedentedly large scale; the East Route rises the water level of the four lakes it passes through. A study in 2009 estimated that aquatic plants will decline by up to 0.25 million tons in Dongping Lake surrounding the construction of the East Route. Freshwater clams, whitebaits and algae are among those species that will be affected. 

It is not the first time China’s water schemes have led to the disappearance of local species. In the last decade, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam has permanently changed the Yangtze’s landscape, damaging the habit of the already-endangered baiji dolphin and rendering them ‘functionally extinct’ at the end of 2006. 

The same study also warns of the potential of southern aquatic species invading northern waters; increasing global temperatures are making waters at higher latitudes habitable for southern species, threatening the biodiversity of the water-receiving regions. Research in 2017 warned of the invasion potential of three southern aquatic plants, namely alligator weed, water hyacinth and water lettuce; alligator weed has already invaded Shandong Province in Northern China. The water diversion project is further facilitating this invasion. 

The project may change hydrology and microclimate in the region; a 10-year study analysing the potential climatic impacts of the Middle Route predicts that the sudden influx of water may alter local evaporation and precipitation rates by bringing more frequent convection (short and intense rain) to the area. Because rain patterns affect temperature, the researchers predict regional microclimate will be modified as the project progresses. 

Social Conflict and Political Instability

The project diverts natural resources to one mega-region at the expense of another, adversely impacting the social well-being of the southern water-supplying region and challenging China’s domestic stability in the long term. 

China’s provincial water disputes provoked the ‘blocking dam’ incident of 2001. Industries in the upstream Jiangsu province had been degrading the shared water of the Zhejiang province since the 1990s. A decline in usable water triggered Zhejiang residents to protest by sinking boats in the waterway to block the polluted water, revealing the provincial governments’ ineffective cooperation on resource management. If there is any public discontentment due to the SNWTP, it will not be merely provincial but regional, which could compromise the country’s national governance. 

The project forces about 330 000 people to relocate to allow for the expansion of the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Middle Route. Insufficient compensation and lack of employment opportunities have created difficult lives for the displaced population, igniting a number of revolts including violence against immigration officials and obstruction of main roads, as reported by China Daily. Coercive displacement is typical of command economies in communist countries like China, North Korea, and in the past, the Soviet Union, whereby the distribution of natural and human resources is manipulated by the central government to maximise national interests, while sacrificing individual rights. Forced evictions occur with most infrastructure projects in China, and is a constant source of mass protests. 

The water supply of the Yangtze Basin in Southern China relies on natural precipitation and glacial melt. As climate change accelerates Himalayan glacial retreat and brings abnormal weather, Southern China may become equally vulnerable to water insecurity; already, south-west China experienced a severe drought in 2011, which impacted the drinking and irrigation water of more than 60 million people. The SNWTP takes water from the Yangtze River and reduces its river discharge; a decline in groundwater may result in seawater flowing inland in dry seasons, contaminating the freshwater aquifers of the Yangtze Delta.

Military Implications and International Relations 

China’s South-East Asian neighbours are equally concerned by China’s response towards its water issues. Chinese territory hosts the headwaters of many important regional rivers. For example, the Mekong originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Western China before reaching Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. The  Brahmaputra also flows across the boundary of China, Bangladesh and India. Therefore, China’s changes upstream can significantly impact the water of downstream countries. 

China is often feared to control regional water resources, shown in its reluctance to sign international agreements on cross-border water management. The country can seize water sources without any military force; because the rivers originate within its territory, they are seen as China’s natural assets. The SNWTP reinforces this impression- despite the inclusion of transboundary rivers such as the Mekong, the Nu River and the Brahmaputra in the West Route, China keeps the project unilateral without seeking input from the affected countries. As a study has analysed, any physical resistance by these countries would be deemed as military aggression, forcing them to comply so as not to compromise regional peace and water sovereignty. 

While the West Route is currently in its planning stage, there is already tension and mistrust by residents. In late 2017, the ‘Red Flag River Project’- a proposal by Chinese scientists and engineers to divert Himalayan glacial water to China’s arid West- created panic among India’s media, since Himalayan glacier melt is an important source of water for two of India’s most important rivers. Although the project was found to be fraudulent, India’s response illustrated its mistrust of China’s use of the region’s water resources.

Territorial issues have existed since the Sino-Indian War in 1962, exacerbated in recent times by China’s mining operations in India’s Lhunze county and rapid military buildup in Ladakh. By August 2019, the two countries had held 21 rounds of Special Representative talks concerning boundary conflicts. The large-scale water diversion project, which involves shared natural resources, may stoke future disputes. 

China’s SNWTP is at best a short-term solution, preventing the government from correcting man-made problems and creating new challenges in the intra- and international community. Experts suggest alternative solutions, such as proper utilisation of local water resources through raising the water price and improving water management bodies. 

Featured image by: Boris Kasimov

Public attitudes in China have shifted substantially to favour stricter regulations on the wildlife trade and a willingness to stop consuming wildlife, researchers reported recently in the Chinese journal Biodiversity Science (生物多样性). Conservationists in China are optimistic that increased attention on wildlife consumption since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will boost national efforts to prioritise biodiversity conservation.

The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, thought to arise from wild bats sold in a meat and produce marketplace, spotlighted the public health risks of China’s rampant and often illegal wildlife trade. “By now, if you enter any cities and even rural areas in China, you can see slogans or pictures that we should keep healthy and not eat wildlife,” said environmental scientist Xiangying Shi of Peking University and executive director of Shan Shui Conservation Center, lead author of the study.

The Chinese government’s wildlife consumption ban, enacted in February 2020, was surprisingly swift, Shi said. Government agencies have since followed up with policies to compensate wildlife farmers who were affected by the ban, which Shi called “encouraging progress.”

To measure how the pandemic might have swayed public opinion about wildlife, Shi and a team of Chinese researchers from six institutions and conservation organisations posted an online survey in February 2020 on social networking platforms. This survey method is an increasingly common practice in China for environmental policy research. The team collected over 100,000 total responses, which they whittled down to 74,040 after removing duplicate and incomplete responses. They then weighted the answers to control for selection bias.

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More than 90 percent of respondents supported a strict ban on wildlife consumption, trade, and exhibition outside of zoos, the researchers found. “We expected that people would support [the ban],” Shi told Mongabay, “but we didn’t expect such a high ratio.”

A large number of responses from young, urban citizens might explain some of the overwhelming support, said study coauthor Lingyun Xiao, a field ecologist at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. Still, Xiao found those results inspiring.

With more education in schools on the importance of protecting wildlife, Xiao said, “We do feel that the younger generation is gradually changing their attitude. So the future, I think, will be bright. It just takes time.”

Meanwhile, national and international NGOs in China report that public awareness and support of conservation has been rising. “Things are changing dramatically, especially because of the big lesson—the pandemic,” said Jinfeng Zhou, Secretary General of the China Biodiversity and Green Development Fund in Beijing, who was not involved with the study.

In February 2019, when Zhou lobbied the government to remove pangolin scales from China’s list of approved traditional medicines, he said he was told to “get lost.” But his second attempt several months ago met with success: China upgraded the legal protections for pangolins to the same status as the nation’s beloved panda, prohibiting nearly all domestic trade and use.

Big education campaigns about conserving wildlife have worked very well to raise public awareness in China, said Steve Blake, chief China representative of the international NGO WildAid, based in San Francisco. For instance, WildAid was behind the anti-ivory campaign “When the buying stops, the killing can, too,” which created so much public support that China banned the ivory trade in 2017.

Since then, Blake noted, the Chinese government has been more open to discussing wildlife issues, strengthening enforcement and prioritising it from the top. Critically, he said, state media have supported these efforts.

In fact, many Chinese do not consider eating wild animals a cultural norm. “Eating wildlife is very rare, especially in cities,” said Shi. It’s only common “in some southern areas,” or when a tourist wants to “try something new,” she said. “And I know many people will think it’s very dangerous and disgusting to eat wildlife.”

Further, some online discussion platforms, such as Weibo, featured tens of thousands of comments during the pandemic from Chinese citizens denouncing the practice.

The wildlife consumption ban has already led to tangible change in China. This year, China already has prosecuted more than 15,000 people for wildlife-related crimes, a 66 percent increase from 2019, according to state prosecutors.

“For food consumption, [the Chinese government] already banned all terrestrial species, which is a really great procedure,” Xiao told Mongabay. However, she noted, “for the other usages, like exotic pets or in Chinese medicine, I think [we still have] a long way to go.”

Although people tend to think of China as an autocracy, said Xiao, the reality is more nuanced. The country’s vast government system and frequent turnover among managers means that “there are always people who are willing to accept new ideas and change the old systems—as long as you give feasible suggestions,” she said.

The response to the pandemic “is just one example that we can actually push things toward the right direction,” Xiao added. “Although [we can’t change] everything, still—step by step—we are changing it.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Emily Harwitz and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.



On October 29th 2020, the 19th Central Committee of the China Communist Party concluded its semi-annual plenum. The issue of discussion was to review the outline for the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP), the state’s vision of economic and social policy over the next five years. The 14th FYP, which will be released in March 2021, aims to improve market efficiency and self-reliance, and emphasise R&D and technological innovation. Perhaps most importantly, however, the plan will radically expand the pilot programmes of China ’s ambitious carbon trading scheme to a national level.

Since October 2011, carbon trading schemes have been implemented in eight jurisdictions across China. The pilot programmes were intended to test how these schemes would work under different conditions. Locations of pilot programmes include the political and business hubs of Beijing and Shanghai, the heartland of China’s manufacturing industry in Guangdong province and the densely populated industrial municipalities of Tianjin and Chongqing.

 The pilot programmes appear to have been successful in reducing China’s carbon intensity, a measure of emission reductions calculated relative to economic growth and GDP, which fell by 48.1% in 2019 compared to a 2005 baseline. By the end of August 2020, China’s pilot carbon trading markets had a total carbon emission trading quota of 406 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, equal to around 9.28 trillion Chinese RMB

China has therefore moved towards adapting the scheme to a national level, where it would become the world’s largest carbon trading market. The emphasis on the scheme in the 14th FYP indicates that it will be rolled out nationally within the next five years, although the specific dates and targets will not be known until the final draft of the plan is approved next March. As the US retreats from international commitments to mitigate climate change, China continues to position itself as a global leader in this regard.

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china national carbon scheme

Figure 1: Financial Times, 2017, Emissions Trading Systems (metric tonne CO2 equivalent): the largest circle refers to the emissions output that would be covered by a national carbon trading scheme in China; FT, Beijing

There have been some challenges in implementing the national scheme, including multiple delays, bureaucratic reshuffling and concerns over transparency and accuracy of emission data.

The national implementation of the scheme represents the efficient strengths of the collectivist and growth-driven perspective on policy shared by China’s leaders, as well as the Chinese state’s shift towards adopting market-based solutions to combat climate change. The scheme’s implementation has, however, encountered resistance in the shape of China’s intricate bureaucracy, and policymakers will have to evaluate how to integrate its tried and tested top-down economic planning mechanisms with the national scheme’s market-based approach.

What are China’s Plans to Mitigate Emissions?

China has pledged to reach peak emissions by 2030, potentially as early as 2027, and will source 20% of its energy from low-carbon sources in 2030. To achieve these targets, China will reduce its carbon intensity rates by 60-65% by 2030, and will increasingly limit its reliance on coal-derived energy, which in 2019 accounted for a heavy 57.7% of its energy mix. 

Discussing the national carbon trading scheme’s role in these targets, Ma Jun, director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, stated that: “The actions of rolling out the national carbon trading scheme cannot be postponed, otherwise, China will be unable to meet the goals of carbon reduction,” underlining the scheme’s importance to the country’s leaders. With a view towards adopting more market-oriented solutions to climate change such as carbon trading, Chinese economic policymakers have shifted from a command-and-control administrative style to adopting market-oriented solutions to tackle climate change.

Authorities will rely on market dynamics to regulate the scheme. A free market environment occasionally regulated by the state should ensure that rates of emission reduction will occur in the most cost-effective manner possible, as emitting entities can be more flexible in deciding when to lower emissions and when to trade emission allowances. Market forces will also take charge in establishing the allocation of resources and allowances.

Chinese policymakers have cooperated with advisors from jurisdictions where carbon trading systems have already been implemented, specifically the EU, Australia and California. There are some similarities between China’s scheme and the models operating in Western countries; for instance, the Chinese scheme’s MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) strategies, certain target determination procedures and a preliminary focus on mitigating energy sector emissions are similar to existing policies in the EU trading scheme. 

Once China’s national scheme becomes operational, 25% of the world’s emissions and nearly 50% of global GDP will be covered by a carbon market.

China has set up its national carbon trading scheme to operate in incremental stages, gradually unfolding to involve more sectors, and focusing on carbon intensity reduction targets. The pilot programmes have been useful in evaluating how a carbon trading scheme functions across diverse sectors. Overall, the scheme will cover emitting firms operating within eight sectors: oil, chemicals, construction materials, steel, nonferrous metals, papermaking, electric power and shipping. The first stage will tackle the energy sector, specifically aiming to use market forces to wean the country off power derived from inefficient coal-fired plants.

While the energy sector phase of the national scheme had most recently been slated to roll out by the end of 2020, it appears that the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impact have pushed the programme back indefinitely, due to pauses in economic activity and difficulties in collecting and verifying emissions data. However, the scheme’s prominent inclusion in the 14th FYP indicates it remains a priority and that the energy sector phase will be rolled out over the next five years.

Carbon Trading in China’s Energy Sector

Tackling energy sector emissions will be critical to the scheme’s long-term feasibility. Coal continues to dominate China’s energy mix, and successful implementation of a national trading scheme in the coal sector will pave the way for future transitions.

china national carbon scheme

Figure 2: IEA, 2020, CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion, China compared to the rest of the world, 2000-2018; IEA, Paris 

For the first phase of the national scheme, policymakers do not appear to be imposing a hard cap on emission rates, as the focus remains on carbon intensity reductions rather than reducing absolute emissions. Each power company will have an individual carbon intensity benchmark based on their emissions relative to the electricity they produce. If a company outperforms their benchmark, they will be allocated tradable credits. Critics have pointed out the risks of this approach, as the lack of a hard cap and absolute emission reduction targets does not incentivise a transition away from coal, only to a more efficient use of coal. Chinese policymakers do, however, intend to gradually minimise the presence of coal in the country’s energy mix, by lowering price ceilings and cutting back on the credits that can be allocated.

Given the focus on carbon intensity reduction, and in the name of remaining cost-efficient and reliant on market dynamics, the Chinese government does not wish to phase out coal entirely. The goal, rather, is to retire inefficient plants before the end of their expected lifetimes, and retrofit existing plants for carbon capture, storage and reutilisation systems. The credit system has been designed to redirect investments into new and more efficient plants, expediting the transition of capital and human resources away from aging, inefficient plants. 

In the short term, a national carbon trading scheme in China will incentivise coal-fired plants to improve plant efficiency or burn higher quality fuel. In the long-term, as alternative energy sources become more widespread and affordable, the aim will be to phase out inefficient and outdated plants altogether.

China’s Bureaucracy and Environmental Policy

The Chinese government has generally viewed the impacts of climate change through a macroeconomic lens. Historically, climate change policy in China has been devised by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), an institutional body for macroeconomic management, tasked with devising economic and social development policy. The NDRC is a massively influential body in Chinese politics, and climate activists have largely been in favour of having an important and relevant body tasked with combating climate change.

 The NDRC played a significant role in devising China’s first carbon trading pilot programmes in 2011, by framing the relevant policy and selecting the participating localities. In 2014, the NDRC issued a set of measures that established a preliminary legal framework for a national carbon trading system. Over subsequent years, NDRC officials continued to tout the eventuality of a national system, and the body was viewed as playing a critical role in the system’s planning.

In 2018, however, as part of a major governmental reshuffle, duties related to climate change policy were stripped from the NDRC, and passed on to a newly formed cabinet body, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). Under the jurisdiction of the NDRC, climate change had become categorised as a strictly economic and developmental issue, dispersing environmental policymaking duties and causing serious bureaucratic inefficiencies and difficulties in coordinating environmental policy.

As Zhou Shengxian, China’s former Environment Minister, stated in 2013: “We take care of carbon monoxide, while carbon dioxide falls under the National Development and Reform Commission.”

The reform policies streamlined a very fragmented approach to drafting environmental policy in China. When the NDRC formulated policy on issues pertaining to climate change, other key inputs to the environmental policymaking process were dispersed throughout Chinese politics’ bureaucracy, requiring the NDRC to coordinate exhaustively with multiple other agencies and institutions of China’s intricate machinery of state. The government hopes to improve efficiency by assigning all duties related to environmental policy to the MEE.  

china national carbon scheme

Figure 3: China Water Risk, 2018: Before and after visualisation of 2018 ministry reform; China Water Risk, Hong Kong 

The multiple delays in formalising the national carbon trading scheme in China, which had at first been ambitiously slated to begin in 2017, were in large part due to bureaucratic inefficiencies at the policymaking level. One of the major challenges was organising an efficient and reliable data collection system that could indicate baseline emission rates across multiple sectors. This was necessary to establish targets and to efficiently allocate allowances. A more streamlined and coordinated approach to environmental policy through the MEE may reduce the latencies of China’s prior environmental policymaking model.

There remain some concerns over the MEE and its future role. Critics believe that moving climate change-related responsibilities from a massively influential policymaking body such as the NDRC to a smaller and newly formed ministry organism may limit climate change and other environmental issues’ visibility at national policymaking discussions. So far, the national scheme does not appear to have suffered significantly from the governmental reshuffle, other than being delayed. The Chinese state will need to ensure that climate policy remains a priority for legislators in future socio-economic planning.

Systemic Obstacles to a Market-Based Approach

A major difference between China ’s approach to implementing a national carbon trading scheme and those in Western countries lies in the nature of respective structural impediments. For systems established in the EU, for instance, action was challenged by the opposition of industry actors and other stakeholders. Adjusting the market to account for carbon trading was not an insurmountable challenge when compared to the political resistance of powerful lobbyists and industry representatives.

The Chinese government will presumably not encounter substantial political resistance, given the collectivist view on policy that the country’s leaders share. Additionally, many of the highest emitting industries in China, particularly in the power and steel sectors, are state-owned enterprises, virtually eliminating the risks and delays to legislation caused by industry lobbying.

The Chinese government however, faces an altogether different type of challenge. How can a country, which has prided its growth over 40 years on the virtues of a planned and top-down system of economic governance, introduce market-based incentives as the driving factor behind policy outcomes in the span of just a few years?

Despite trends that indicate movement towards a mature market economy, this transition has not been completed, nor do the country’s leaders express any desire to do so. At its core, China remains a socialist market economy, in which free markets and private property only exist within the ubiquitous reach of dominating state-owned enterprises and government actors. This is true in certain sectors more than others, and especially so in the power sector which is largely controlled by firms closely affiliated with the state.

Larry Goulder, a Stanford University economist who has worked on establishing carbon markets in California and Guangdong, said in 2017:

“In China, it’s not explicit political challenges that one faces as much as institutional. That is to say, the country doesn’t have as much of an apparatus for monitoring and keeping track of emissions. In addition, much of the economy is still not a market economy, but rather state-run in terms of the way prices are set, and that’s particularly true of the power sector. One of the key challenges is how to introduce environmental regulations, even market-based regulations, in a world where many of the sectors won’t respond as well because prices are controlled.”

The Chinese government has made it clear that market forces will play a key role in determining the dynamics of a national carbon market, although allowing markets full control over sectors that have historically been dominated by the heavy hand of government presents a significant challenge.

To move towards market-oriented regulating mechanisms, the Chinese state has gradually been enacting relevant reforms. In 2012, the state passed a bill to reform coal pricing. The bill allowed all prices of coal commodities, which had previously been split between state and market determination depending on the buyer and intended use, to be determined by market forces.

Pegging single unit prices to other commodities directed by market dynamics has also been a successful strategy. The case of natural gas is a good example. Historically seen as a lesser fuel source to coal, state agencies have long priced natural gas significantly below production costs, discouraging domestic producers from investing in gas production and restraining imports. Natural gas’ resurgence as a relatively clean alternative to coal, however, led to the introduction of a new pricing mechanism in 2011 by the NDRC, that pegs the per-unit price of natural gas to the price of other alternative fuels that are determined through market forces. This mechanism allows gas prices to be determined according to the market developments of other alternative fuels, gradually decoupling natural gas from years of state price controls and allowing the industry and related infrastructures to grow in China and supplant inefficient coal plants. This pricing mechanism was employed to positive results in some of the pilot trading programmes’ markets.

China has put in motion a series of reforms to decouple prices and resource demand from state interventions, relying increasingly on market forces. For a national carbon market to operate self-sufficiently within a free market environment, these steps are critical. Chinese companies, however, remain in uncharted waters for the most part, and will need to be guided by occasional state intervention. Price floors on carbon trading will be important to implement and adjust when needed, to motivate investor participation and an active market environment. Likewise, price ceilings can limit any single firm or enterprise from gaining disproportionate levels of size and power. Environmental taxes and penalties should not be discounted either, should competition ever need to be balanced out.

The state will need to strike a delicate balance between interventionism and allowing the market to govern itself, between encouraging competition and ensuring a level playing field. China already possesses a wealth of experience from its pilot programmes, as well as important advisory inputs from other carbon trading markets in the world. China’s centralised political system is an advantage, in that the state will not need to worry about combative non-compliance, obstructionist industry lobbying or contesting political priorities. For decades, China’s rapid growth has benefited from coherent policy through command-style economic planning, and the development opportunities afforded by free market capitalism. If the state can balance these two ideologies, it can certainly stake a strong claim as a global leader in market-driven environmental action.

Featured image by: Flickr 

Scientists in the Qilian mountains in China have warned that the region’s glaciers are melting at a ‘shocking’ rate, raising the possibility of crippling, long-term water shortages. 

The largest glacier in the 800-km mountain chain on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau has retreated about 450 metres since the 1950s, according to monitoring stations. 

Why Does This Matter?

Qin Xiang, the director at the monitoring station, says that the glacier is also losing thickness, with about 13 metres of ice disappearing as temperatures have risen. 

Xiang says, “The speed that this glacier has been shrinking is really shocking.” 

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The Tibetan plateau is called the world’s Third Pole because of the amount of ice that is locked in it. However, since the 1950s, average temperatures in the region have risen about 1.5 degrees Celsius, with temperatures set to rise further in the coming years. Across the mountains, glacier retreat was 50% faster in 1990-2010 than it was from 1956 to 1990, according to data from the China Academy of Sciences. 

Xiang says that the flow of water in a stream near the boundaries of the Laohugou No. 12 runoff is about double what it was 60 years ago.

Further downstream, near Dunhuang, water flowing from the mountains has formed a lake in the desert for the first time in 300 years, according to state media.  

Climate Change Causing Dangerous Changes

Snowfall and rain has been at times erratic and far less than normal, so while melting glaciers have brought more water runoff, farmers downstream can still face water shortages for their crops and livestock. 

These new fluctuating conditions also bring danger, according to Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Liu Junyan. 

Junyan says, “Across the region, glacial melt water is pooling into lakes and causing devastating floods. In spring, we’re seeing increased flooding, and then when water is needed most for irrigation later in the summer, we’re seeing shortages.”

The melting in the mountains could peak before 2030, after which snow melt would decrease sharply due to the smaller, fewer glaciers, according to China Academy of Sciences expert Shen Yongping. He warns that this could bring water crises to the region. 

Featured image by: Flickr

A new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that global renewable energy electricity installation will hit record levels in 2020 compared to the sharp declines in the fossil fuel sectors caused by COVID-19. 

The report says that almost 90% of new electricity generation in 2020 will be from renewable energy sources, with 10% powered by gas and coal. This puts renewable energy electricity on track to become the largest power source by 2025, overtaking coal which has dominated the global power grid for the past 50 years and supplying one-third of the world’s electricity. 

Hydropower will continue to supply almost half of global renewable electricity, followed by wind and solar PV. 

The report forecasts that net installed renewable capacity will grow by nearly 4% this year, reaching almost 200 GW, driven by China and the US. 

Solar power capacity has increased 18-fold since 2010 and wind power four-fold, according to IEA data. Hydropower provided 77% of green power in 2010, but this has fallen to 45% in 2020.

Additionally, renewable energy is becoming increasingly appealing to investors. The report shows that shares in renewable equipment makers and project developers have outperformed most major stock market indices and that the value of shares in solar companies has more than doubled since December 2019. 

Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, says, “Renewable power is defying the difficulties caused by the pandemic, showing robust growth while others fuels struggle. The resilience and positive prospects of the sector are clearly reflected by continued strong appetite from investors.” 

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India and the EU will be the driving forces of even stronger predicted growth in 2021, according to the IEA. However, growth could decline slightly in 2022 under current policies. Birol says, “Renewables are resilient to the COVID crisis but not to policy uncertainties. Governments can tackle these issues to help bring about a sustainable recovery and accelerate clean energy transitions.

He continues, “In the US, for instance, if the proposed clean electricity policies of the next US administration are implemented, they could lead to a much more rapid deployment of solar PV and wind.”

Recent analysis by Vivid Economics for the Guardian shows that more of the COVID-19 recovery funds being spent by governments is going to fossil fuel sectors than green projects.

Jason Eis, the chief executive of Vivid Economics, says, “The natural environment and climate change have not been a core part of the thinking in the bulk of recovery plans. In the majority of countries we are not seeing a green recovery coming through at all.”

The EU is a frontrunner in this aspect, devoting 30% of its €750bn (USD$886bn) Next Generation Recovery Fund to green projects. France and Germany have set aside about €30bn ($35bn) and €50bn ($59bn) respectively of their own additional stimulus packages for green projects. 

China, however, is devoting just 0.3% of its €1.2bn ($1.4bn) package for green projects, while in the US, before the election, around €22bn ($26bn), or just over 1%, of the announced package was slated for green projects. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

A new report by Fitch Ratings says that the green finance market in China is set to expand, driven by supportive policies and government initiatives, as a way to achieve the country’s pledge of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.

The report, titled “Green Finance Expands to Support China’s Transition to Low Carbon Emissions,” finds that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, policies and incentives to develop the green finance market in China have continued to emerge. Financial regulators have set policy goals to address climate change through investment and financing tools in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan. 

More initiatives will be announced as policymakers learn from regional green finance pilot schemes to create a national framework. 

The onshore green bond market operates based on local guidelines that are different from commonly accepted global standards, such as the eligibility of certain projects and the share of proceeds allowed to be allocated to general working capital. Guidelines from the People’s Bank of China in 2020 have reduced the gap on eligible projects and it is expected that the desire to open onshore markets to foreign investors will drive further standardisation. 

Banks play a larger role in China’s onshore green bond market than in other markets around the world, both as issuers and holders of green instruments. This is partly due to their role in extending credit early in the development of the green finance system, and this green credit was subsequently refinanced through green bonds. 

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green finance market china

Source: Fitch Ratings, 2020. 

Fitch says that it expects the inclusion of green banking benchmarks in macro-prudential assessments and the growing focus on climate risk to support demand for green assets. However, it expresses concern that broader policy priorities, such as deleveraging of the banking system, could act as a constraint.

In September, China pledged that it would aim to reach peak emissions by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060. Since its announcement, South Korea and Japan have made similar announcements, both pledging to become carbon neutral by 2050. 

Fitch predicts that a national emissions trading scheme (ETS) is likely to be a key part of the country’s strategy to transition to a low-carbon economy. The Chinese government announced plans for a national ETS in 2017, with the aim of a full launch by the end of 2020. It is expected to first cover coal- and gas- fired power plants, with emission allowances allocated depending on a plant’s output and technological mix.

It is hoped that a comprehensive national ETS will increase carbon prices in China and spur investment in low-carbon technologies. 

Pangolin scales — armour-like, keratin-based plates that cover a pangolin’s body — are still being used in medicines sold and produced by companies in China, a new report has found. This is being done despite the Chinese government banning pangolin scales from the official list of approved ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and even giving the highest level of national protection to three species — the Chinese (Manis pentadactyla), Sunda (M. javanica) and Indian (M. crassicaudata) pangolins — back in June.

In the days following the pangolin scale ban, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based nonprofit, reported that pangolin scales were still present in eight patent medicines in China ’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners, although scales had been removed from the list of raw ingredients. On Oct. 13, EIA released a new report that expands upon these earlier findings.

It reveals that 56 Chinese companies are actively producing and advertising 64 medicines containing pangolin scales, and that a further 165 companies and 713 hospitals are currently licensed to manufacture and sell these products.

One company selling pangolin-based medicine is China Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group Co. Ltd., the country’s largest TCM pharmaceutical company, which has subsidiaries in many parts of the world, as well as shareholders from major European and U.S. investment funds, the report says.

Many of these pangolin-based products are available for sale on the various companies’ websites, as well as e-commerce platforms such as eBay, according to the report.

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“This is further evidence that China is maintaining its legal market, and that pharmaceutical companies are able to sell these products,” Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner at EIA, told Mongabay. “The trade has not been banned.”

The EIA report also suggests that China’s national insurance scheme continues to cover pangolin scale medicines, despite the Chinese government’s 2019 announcement that insurance would cease this coverage.

“While the yinpian — the semi-processed scale — had been removed from coverage, actually five [medicines containing pangolin scales] are remaining on there,” Hamley said. “Four of those remained on the list that had been published … in 2017, and a new one was actually added in 2019. It’s almost the opposite of what was widely believed to have been the case … it shows that the Chinese government is endorsing use of pangolin scales and stimulating demand by actually paying for TCM consumers in China to use pangolin scale medications.”

However, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), an environmental nonprofit that has helped facilitate protective measures for pangolins in China, says the removal of yinpian from national insurance coverage was still a positive move.

“This is a big progress as it gives a heavy blow to the pangolin scale market which now is severely limited and even stopped by this newly announced decision on shrinking the medicine insurance coverage,” Cyan Wang, international coordinator of CBCGDF, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “In addition, the market TCM with the ingredients of pangolin and its parts is further influenced. A … [lot of] progress [has been made] in the reduction and even eradication of the usage of pangolin in medicine is foreseeable.”

She added that the national insurance scheme has rolled out new interim measures that will place further restrictions on pangolin scale medications, forbidding any medicines containing parts of endangered or rare wildlife.

Pharmaceutical companies and hospitals wishing to produce pangolin-based medication are only able to source scales from government-registered stockpiles, Hamley said. While there are some regulations on how these stockpiles are managed, the legal origin does not need to be verified, according to the EIA report.

“The Chinese Government claims its wildlife product traceability scheme ensures pangolin scales used in approved medicines originate only from old verified stockpiles, but there is a mismatch between availability and demand,” the report says. “Lacking traceability and transparency, the regulatory system has pervasive opportunities for laundering pangolin scales illegally sourced from throughout Asia and Africa.”

Wang says the current stockpile management system does have its pitfalls, but that illegally sourced pangolin scales could be stamped out with stricter recording efforts, DNA testing, and harsher penalties for those involved in the illegal trade.

All eight species of pangolins are protected under CITES Appendix I, which prohibits trade except in exceptional circumstances, but this regulation does not forbid domestic trade within China itself.

A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center For Advanced Defense (C4ADS) found that the international pangolin trade is growing at a rapid rate. Between 2015 and 2019, the report says, 253 metric tons of pangolin scales were confiscated, and the annual amount of pangolin scales seized had increased by almost 400%.

While the EIA report suggests that the pangolin trade is persisting in China, and that any regulatory measures have so far been ineffective, the team at CBCGDF says there has still been major progress in pangolin conservation in China.

“We hold the positive attitude that the global pangolin smuggling trade will encounter a major turning point and greatly decrease,” Wang said. “Facts will prove that our estimation is reasonable.”

Featured image by: Flickr 

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

South Korea has announced that it will try to become carbon neutral by 2050, although he stopped short of promising to achieve the goal. In a policy speech during a national assembly on October 28, President Moon Jae-in said that the nation would “respond to the climate crisis with the international community.”

South Korea’s declaration follows Japan’s pledge earlier this week to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and it joins other major economies who have set the same goal, such as the EU and China, who recently announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2060.

South Korea is one of the largest fossil fuel-reliant economies, with 40% of its electricity generated from imported coal and less than 6% from renewables. It still has seven coal power units under construction and it is one of the top three public financers of overseas coal power projects

To become carbon neutral by 2050, Moon says that South Korea will commit itself to ending its dependence on coal by investing USD$ 2.1 billion next year in renewables as part of its Green New Deal as well as investing $3.7 billion to increase charging stations for electric vehicles. The Green New Deal was set up in July 2020, which plans to end the financing of overseas coal plants and create urban forests, establish a carbon tax, plan for recycling and establish a foundation for renewable energy. It was also set up to help the country achieve a green economic recovery post-COVID-19.

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According to the International Energy Agency, the country was the world’s 7th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2017 and the current trajectory will result in only 24% reduction in emissions below 2017 levels by 2030. Campaigners have warned that South Korea will need to change their energy policy to have even the slightest possibility of reaching their zero-emissions target. 

The government announced earlier this year that its 60 coal-fired power stations would be halved by 2034, with new liquefied natural gas plants making up the deficit. 

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “very encouraged” by President Moon’s commitment to get South Korea to net zero emissions.

Through closing coal-fired power plants and plans to cut 24 nuclear power plants to 17 by 2034, Moon’s government hopes to rely on renewable energy, like wind, water and solar power. However, shutting down nuclear plants will make the 2050 goal much more difficult to achieve, as its plan to cut its nuclear plants will reduce the sector’s energy output by nearly half.  

Although there is still a lot to do, “South Korea is finally one step closer to aligning itself with the reduction pathway compatible with the Paris climate agreement goal,” managing director of NGO Solutions for Our Climate, Joojin Kim, says.

Featured image by: Flickr

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