“Will China Save the Planet?” by Barbara Finamore

China buildings

As oceans warm and ice caps melt, it’s hard to be optimistic about slowing, let alone stopping, global warming. Barbara Finamore nonetheless finds reason for optimism in her authoritative look at China’s unfolding energy transition.

China burns half the world’s coal. It is the world’s largest carbon emitter, overtaking the US despite a smaller economy. China is an energy hog, partly because of its continuing reliance on heavy industry and party because low prices encourage waste. So it’s possible for China to do much better just by improving efficiency, relatively low-hanging fruit.

The beginning of a remarkable change in China’s energy and environmental policy has been evident for five years. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama signed a landmark climate partnership in 2014. China stepped out of the shadows to take a leadership role at the 2015 Paris climate talks that led to a path-breaking global agreement.

China’s internal plans call for increased renewable energy, part of a pledge to source 20% of energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. China has said that carbon emissions will peak around 2030, hopefully earlier, and that carbon intensity will be reduced by 60-65% below 2005 levels by that date.

Already, coal use seems to have leveled off. Coal is the largest source of air pollution in China, killing more than 700,000 people prematurely each year. China’s coal burning is the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions. So China has plenty of reason to want to clean up, both to stop killing its own people with air pollution and to forestall the worst effects of the increasingly severe floods and droughts that come with climate change.

 If you want to read one book on China’s energy and environmental transformation, Finamore’s lucid volume is the one.

 Will China Save the Planet?, Barbara Finamore (Polity, November 2018)
Will China Save the Planet?, Barbara Finamore (Polity, November 2018)

Finamore, an attorney and the Senior Strategic Director for Asia at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) environmental NGO, has focused her work on China for 30 years. In 1996, she founded the NRDC’s China Program and the NRDC was the first foreign NGO to start a China clean energy program. An early green building that she was involved with proved so successful at cutting energy use that local officials put locked cages around the electricity meters to prevent what they believed was unauthorized tampering.

Finamore has thus been in a unique position to watch the development of China’s policies at a time of extraordinary economic transformation and equally stunning environmental degradation. Her experience makes this short book both authoritative and comprehensive, an excellent summary of current policies and research. If you want to read one book on China’s energy and environmental transformation, Finamore’s lucid volume is the one.

Her assessment is very much of the glass-half-full variety. She deftly outlines policies and aspirations but understates the continuing power of the coal industry, ranging from miners to electric utility operators. Her brief discussion of China’s carbon trading efforts is revealing in its brevity: this much-vaunted program has been delayed and scaled back and is unlikely to be the sort of success the Chinese government and Western environmentalists had hoped. The environmental costs of the Belt and Road Initiative are similarly downplayed.

We all need to hope that Finamore’s optimism is well-founded.

There’s also a notable reticence to discuss the role of NGOs and ordinary citizens, perhaps a sign of tightening political constraints. The discussion of Beijing’s airpocalypse and the citizen outcry that follows makes no mention of the searing documentary Under the Dome, which was downloaded some 300 million times in China before government censors stepped in.

While it is important to note, as Finamore does, the impressive green building targets of the current five-year plan, effective building-energy efficiency policies need bottom-up enthusiasm, on the part of everyone from construction workers to building maintenance staff. Citizen movements have everywhere played a powerful role in pushing governments toward greener policies. It is very much an open question as to whether authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics can engineer a significantly less carbon-intensive economy. Xi Jinping talks about “ecological civilization”, but what does this really mean in an economy addicted to high growth?

There isn’t much time to come up with a convincing answer. The speed of China’s change in the past five years has surprised everyone. So, too, has the acceleration of global warming and unimaginable weather is becoming the new normal. We all need to hope that Finamore’s optimism is well-founded.

Mark Clifford is Executive Director of the ‎Asia Business Council.