forum discussion #3

China: Global Warming Savior or Sinner?

Julian Wong

Julian L. Wong

China burns more coal than any other country. It also leads the world in solar energy construction. So is China a global warming villain or a global warming hero — or both?

In this World Science Forum (July 20, 2009), we had Julian L. Wong, an expert on China’s green efforts.

He’s a senior policy analyst with the Energy Opportunity team at the Center for American Progress. Read his recent report, China Begins Its Transition to a Clean-Energy Economy.

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And here’s his blog, The Green Leap Forward.

We spoke to Wong. Download the interview, or listen here: He begins by talking about how reducing carbon is a big part of China’s current five-year plan.

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You asked him questions on a range of green issues related to China.

Wong says China is quickly ramping up its efforts to increase energy efficiency. At the same time, he notes that the country’s overall emissions continue to rise six to eight percent a year.

Read the comments of Julian and others below.


The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    If China is ever going to reduce its carbon emissions — and not just slow the growth of emissions — it must stop building coal plants (and should, in fact, start tearing them down). But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. So what are the odds that China can reduce its emissions before severe climate change begins?

    Of course, China and the U.S. talk about someday pumping the carbon emissions from coal plants underground, but isn’t that still a distant dream?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Thanks for the question David. On the coal plants, you might actually be heartened to hear that China has an active policy of shutting down small inefficient coal plants while replacing them with larger more efficient coal plants. It is not a 1:1 replacement and there is still a net gain in coal capacity, but the result is that the entire fleet of coal plants has increased its thermal efficiency 5.6% over the past three years. That is a significant gain in efficiency.

      Obviously, international climate policy is infused with politicized debates about the North’s moral culpability and the South’s right to develop. A realistic approach for China is to start slowing the growth of emissions, aim for a peak in the next 15 to 25 years, after which absolute reductions are achieved.

      Carbon capture and storage for coal power plants is not commercially scalable now, but the technologies for the different sub components of CCS are available now. Significant financing and engineering work will be needed to figure out how to put all the pieces together.

  2. Peter Tyson

    Many in the West rightly condemn China’s Communist Party leadership for its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, suppression of religious freedoms, and other “undemocratic” policies. Yet one might argue that one such governmental decree that would never fly in the West — namely, the one-child policy to help control population growth –- might be making the best of a bad situation (even as it leaves one wondering what an entire society of “only children” will be like a few decades from now).

    My question for Julian Wong is: To what degree does the Communist Party’s absolute control of Chinese society, for all it’s derided in the West, make it possible to enact and enforce the kind of climate change-related changes that we all know need to happen and yet that the West may not be able to achieve given its understandable focus on freedoms? That is, when it comes to the environment, is there potentially a silver lining within the cloud of autocratic communist rule in China?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Thanks for the question, Peter. The one-party rule admittedly makes it easier to implement national policies, but that is not always the case. The large land mass of China means that while there is a lot of central planning, power is actually quite decentralized to the 20+ provinces. Provinces, in turn, devolve power to the cities and towns. So the effectiveness of local implementation of national laws has been mixed.

      Environmental policies have particularly been difficult to implement because they have historically conflicted with economic goals and the performance evaluations of local officials were tied to GDP targets rather than environmental performance. This appears to be changing–energy conservation is now a pillar economic strategy and, from what I understand, has become a key metric in the promotion evaluations of local officials. This perhaps accounts for why China seems to be making steady progress in meeting its 2010 goal of reducing energy intensity by 20% from 2005 levels.

  3. Peter Angelo

    China is an enigma with respect to global warming. Obviously a country of this size and resources will increase energy consumption and output many fold while moving from an agrarian to industrialized society. However while it most likely leads all other countries in carbon generation and overall footprint, it also boasts the most aggressive nuclear energy program, with many reactors planned, under construction, or just now beginning operation. The use of nuclear energy per capita is on the rise. Nuclear energy is shown to be very helpful in the reduction of greenhouse gasses produced from conventional fossil fuel plants.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Nuclear is low carbon on an ongoing basis, and China has big plans for nuclear to expand it from 1% of its power needs today to 5% by 2020. After accounting for a projected doubling of the power market by 2020, that means installed capacity for nuclear could be 10 times of what it is today if China makes good on this target.

      Setting aside age-old debates of safety issues, ability to handle nuclear waste, risk of nuclear proliferation, and the finite supply of uranium feedstock, whats troubling to me in China’s context is water. Nuclear reactors need large quantities of water for cooling purposes, but China is so water impoverished, with just 7% of the world’s water resources supporting 20% of the population. To deploy nuclear effectively, Chinese planners will need to pay serious attention to the “water-energy nexus.”

      • Peter Angelo

        Hi Julian,

        It’s been a while since we talked and post-Fukushima, I still believe China will be moving forward with nuclear. I would however like to challenge your thinking a bit on what types of reactors you believe China will go after. There is a design that uses throrium in a liquid flouride molten-salt, LFTR (or “Lifter”) that pretty much answers your questions regarding nuclear waste, safety and nonproliferation. I have read where China will be pursuing LFTR technology even more aggressive after Fukushima. I also believe the most current generation of reactors that have been designed do answer many of the questions people have regarding safety. One would not want to fly in 50 year technology, and it would seem reasonable that a modernized nuclear technology can also evolve. Thanks

  4. LisaGS

    I’d like to hear more about China’s burgeoning environmental activist groups. How much influence are they having on China’s energy policies and how much is driven by external influences?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Hey Lisa, civil society in China is burgeoning, and the environmental pillar of civil society is especially prominent. I think they can play a increasingly strong role in China, not so much by directtly influencing decisions, but by bringing to the debate reliable and high quality information. I have especially valued research reports by WWF, Greenpeace and Global Environment Initiative.

      Groups like Roots ‘n Shoots and Future Generations are also laying very important groundwork in educating the youth of China on environmental and climate issues.

      Overall, I believe that civil society in will play a very important role in China’s greening.

  5. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Peter Thomson

    Hi Julian,

    Peter Thomson here, the World’s environment editor. Thanks for being our guest on the forum this week.

    You talk about the progress that China is making in reducing its energy intensity–the amount of energy used per unit of GDP. In a high-carbon economy, lower energy intensity means less carbon is emitted per unit of GDP. But of course when GDP is growing rapidly, overall emissions can continue to grow even as energy intensity drops. That’s what’s happening in China now.

    Not long ago, President Bush talked about reducing the US’s energy intensity and was roundly criticised by environmentalists for changing the subject from the need to make real, absolute cuts in carbon emissions. So why are some of these same folks now lauding China for doing the same thing?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Hi Peter,

      This differentiated response comes with the recognition that the US and China are on very different positions of the development curve. US has had 150 years to industrialize, whereas China did not embark on such “modernization” till 30 years ago. Furthermore, the average Chinese has just one fourth or one fifth the levels of emissions of the average American. Thus, the Chinese make what many consider to be a strong case for a right to develop and for Western countries to take the lead on climate action.

      That said, we could debate if the current climate crisis gives us the luxury of “being fair” and allowing for this right to develop. I personally do think China has a right to develop, but it had better take a far different path of development than its Western predecessors or else the sheer size of its economy would render any climate action on the part of other countries as meaningless. I am optimistic that China’s leadership is starting to understand the need for this sort of leapfrog approach, and its leadership in certain key clean technology sectors is reflective of this.

  6. Linus

    Hi Julian,

    Alot of the major policies seem to be targetting at big businesses and governments(local provincial levels). I have also seen policies that have an impact on individual habits e.g. banning plastic bags from malls or charging for their use.

    How much of the negative impact comes from industrial activity vs individuals?
    Should we be focused on large corporates first or individuals?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Because of China’s rapid industrialisation at the turn of the decade, industry accounts for the vast majority of carbon emissions, pollution and energy consumption. Just top 1000 energy consuming companies alone account for 33% of China’s overall energy consumption and 47% of its CO2 emissions. So the real leverage in terms of immediate cliamte action is to address heavy industry.

      That said, because companies and governments are made of people, I think there is value in addressing individual action, not just by top-down policies such as the band on free plastic bags and energy-efficient light bulb drives, but through bottom-up initiatives such as evironmental education and volunteerism. So I would vote for a dual approach.

  7. ksawyer

    I’d like your thoughts about the solar construction. A few lifecycle analysis have been conducted on the various solar technologies (primarily PV, but also panels used for heating). Although the operation of solar panels themselves, produces no GHG emissions, solar panel manufacturing requires fossil fuel combustion — both fluorinated hydrocarbons and CO2 are emitted. I know CO2-equivalent emissions for solar are less than what you’d see for a coal life-cycle (although arguably the same or slightly greater than GHG emissions over a nuclear life-cycle). If China is primarily involved with solar energy technology from manufacturing standpoint, rather than for use in their energy economy, then I’m not sure “solar energy construction” redeems them from the coal “sin”. How do we also look at this from a global scale — to what extent are the solar panels manufactured in China reducing global reliance on fossil fuel combustion for heat and electricity? Are their emission controls on those solar panel manufacturing plants? And what about environmental and health impacts resulting from other impacts, i.e. coal is not “bad” from just a GHG/climate change standpoint. The environmental and health costs from use of coal for energy are monumental in comparison to other fuel technologies (oil and natural gas are a close 2nd and third). I’m not sure what to think about nuclear– only a questions about waste disposal — even if we burry it deep, some future generation will have to deal with it. From that perspective, it seems China’s efforts to enter the renewable energy market should be applauded. Thoughts?

    • dk

      This brings up an interesting question, which reminds me of the biofuel debate. in that case, it appears that the apparent savings we get from using biofuels is erased by the cost of actually producing those biofuels: cutting down forests, for instance.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Lotsa questions, ksawyer (is that you, Kevin?!)! Let me parse them through. On solar, a lifecycle analysis on its energy and environmental impacts need to be considered. Lots of solar industry folk tell me that solar panels pay back their “energy debt” after two years of operation, but it is certainly open to debate where the lines of that “energy debt” are drawn. Does it include all the energy needed to process the polysilicon? Does include energy needed for the transportation of raw ingredients, intermediate products, and final shipment? All worth investigating. But my hunch, like yours, is that it comes out much better than fossil fuels, which have tremendous energy costs in terms of the assembly of their plants. And I haven’t talked about extraction costs for oil and coal, which are tremendous. Solar, in comparison? Practically none.

      It is also true that until recently, over 90% of the panels China produced has been exported. Its almost as if China were keeping its dirt energy in, and exporting clean energy to others. But that’s set to change. With new incentives for domestic installation announced earlier this year, we are starting to see a flurry of new domestic solar projects, so much so that CHina will probably meet its 2020 installed solar target of 1.8 GW in the next two years.

      As for nuclear, see my reply to Peter Angelo’s question, above.

  8. DJ


    I’m wondering how China’s policies to limit population growth affect projections for the carbon they are going to produce over the next 30 years? Have the policies been effective at limiting population growth? If China is experiencing negative population growth, how does that effect its projections?


    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      DJ, I believe the projection is that China’s current population of 1.3 billion will rise gradually but stablize at 1.5 billion before starting to shrink gradually. The key question is whether the lifestyles of the Chinese converge with Western ones, as we are starting to see with increased car ownership, increased penetration of electric appliances, and increased meat consumption. If that is indeed the case, any decrease in population is going to be offset by increased per capita carbon footprint.

  9. Hi Julian,

    Claims of protectionism are increasingly part of the international dialogue with regard to the transition towards a clean energy economy. In China, these claims are driven by local content requirements and bidding processes that make market entry and competition difficult for foreign firms. In the US, the inclusion of tariffs in the ACES bill directed towards nations that do not commit to GHG limits has drawn sharp criticism.

    What do you suggest will develop in the protectionist debate over the coming months? Will some cleantech transfer framework between developed and developing nations mitigate the issue? Also, the protectionist dialogue is often framed bilaterally as a US-China issue. Will we see a bilateral agreement driving global consensus?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Hey Alex, great set of questions. In terms of ACES, my sense after listening to a hearing at the Seante Finance Committee on this topic, and takiing a que from President Obama, is that there is a growing desire to fix the provisions of the House bill that allows for what amoutns for carbon tariffs. Its simply not smart policy. First, such measures are no way to build international trust and to gain the goodwill of the likes of key players like China. Second, the US may not be ready for the retaliotary trade actions of other countries. Better to negotiate for a strong international agreement that levels the playing field and provides remedies for climate inaction through an internationally sanctioned mechanims than to go the uniliateal route. Failing which, ACES already provides free allowances to chushion energy-intensive and trade vulnerable industries. Carbon-tariffs should be considered only as a last resort.

      As for China, I think it will continue to set its own rules. But despite claims of protectionism in China, it is important to recognize that some foreign firms have had some success. Look at Vestas, Siemens, Gamesa and General Electric. So while there is a doemstic content requirement in the wind industry, MNCs have adapted by building manufacturing plants in China (domestic manufacturing just makes more logistical and environmental sense anyhow). Bidding processes continue to favor Chinese bidders because of their cost advantage. That by itself is not problematic, but it is a problem if it favors lowest cost producers at the expense of quality. That problem perhaps deserves a targetted response.

      Hard to say how this all shakes out. Certainly financing, technolgy and adaptation assistance will be key to any global deal. I think its a global issue, not limited to US and China. It just seems like US and China are the only countries in the world right now because it makes for good drama and headlines.

  10. Hey Julian! Thanks for all the thoughtful answers.

    As I recall, one of the big issues with China offering up any data on GHG emission reductions is the ability to keep its MRV committment.

    I’ve heard that the 1000 largest energy consuming enterprises program is making great strides in giving us more information about energy consumption and emissions, but on the other hand, for example, the agriculture sector has huge uncertainties, data shortages, absence of emission factors, etc. associated with it.

    Even if China doesn’t want to commit to GHG emission caps, to what extent is China technically prepared for it? Where should data and data organization research be focused at this time in China to make the greatest difference to MRV emission reductions? What institutional changes still need to be made?

    • dk

      Hi All:

      Just a quick mini-FAQ:
      GHG = Greenhouse gas
      MRV = measurable, reportable and verifiable — it means that a country can’t just promise to change its climate-related behavior, it has to agree to be tested and regulated.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Hey Rob, great question, and not one easy to definitely answer. But let me direct your attention to this recent report by World Resources Institute entitled “Mitigation Actions in China: Measurement, Reporting and Verification” (link below), whose findings might surprise you. Its an excellent report that tracks the capacity for MRV for many of China’s energy and environmental policies, and finds that there is actually considerable depth to MRV capacity across the board. This is not to say things are perfect, but they are certainly far from non-existent.

  11. Paul Joy

    Hi Julian, Thanks for your continued attention to this important issue.

    My question has to do with China’s stimulus spending. This past week in San Francisco, Ms. Amy Summers from Squire Saunders in Shanghai gave a lecture on Chinese stimulus spending. When I asked her about the overall goals of the stimulus, she said that Chinese stimulus spending is not primarily for environmental protection and greentech investment. Do you agree with that assessment? And how quickly will China be able to reduce stimulus spending as to avoid runaway emissions, inflation, etc? This question is really related to Mr. Earley’s question. Thanks Julian!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

      Paul, important question and one worth the clarfication because there is a great deal of misunderstanding about China’s economic stimulus program. The bottom line is that only some 5 to 9% of it is allocated to environmental related projects, mostly to water treatment, forestry and river cleanups, and a small bit to energy conservation. None has been specifically allocated to renweable energy (although as I’ve described before in my blog, a new 10 year energy stimulus package is in the cards that shoudl provide healthy doses of money for renewable energy). When you hear figures that China is spending almost 40% of its stimulus package to green projects, that is a claim that originate from a misleading report from HSBC that includes infrastructure spending in grid and rail, which is not green per se.

  12. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Julian L. Wong

    Thank you everyone who took the time to pose a question. I am encouraged by the increased interest in China’s energy situation as it is a very critical area that has impacts beyond its boundaries. I continue to share my observations on China’s energy and environmental issues on my blog The Green Leap Forward ( http://greenleapforward )so feel free to pose questions there as well. Thank you again to all of you, especially The, for this opportunity to share my thoughts.

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