‘Greening’ of China

Updated 24 February, 2014

China is woefully aware of its status as the world’s biggest carbon emitter

China’s main defence is that in per capita terms it is still a modest emitter and that there should be two standards, one for developed and the other for developing nations.

Carbon emission 2011: 1 China, 2 US, 3 India, 10 UK

Per capita emission 2011:  1 US, 9 UK, 16 China, 20 India

Despite opinion that China contributed significantly to the failure of the recent Copenhagen climate change summit (others would argue it was the US that wrecked it. But that’s another story. In any case there is strong Chinese-US collaboration on green issues and technology), it is not sitting on its hands.

BTW – if you remember China’s collective memory of the century of humiliation and being forced to sign unequal treaties, it will go some way to explain why it will not be coerced into any ‘unfair’ treaty, but needs to be persuaded that it is not unfair. Giving China a bad name only reminds it of the Ah Q storyand makes it more resolute not to sign.

For an easy to read and assimilate book on the reality of pollution and the effects of industrialisation in China, read When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will save Mankind – or destroy it,  which is written as a personal travelogue from ‘Shangri-La’ in Yunnan in the south to ‘Xanadu’ on the steppes of Inner Mongolia by environmental journalist, Jonathan Watt.

China knows what is wrong and is doing a lot about it

It carried out a national pollution census that took two years and 570,000 staff. It knows that of 20 most seriously polluted cities in the world, 16 are found in China. 40% of Chinese rivers are polluted. There are increasing cases of birth defects and increased illnesses due to pollution where industrialisation or old coal-powered generators run.

It escaped a major loss of face when the Beijing Olympics were not as smog bound as some Cassandra’s were predicting. Much of the pollution of China’s water, soil and air has been caused by the desire of local governments to compete against other authorities and regions for natural resources and meet production targets. Corruption has also produced a flood of illegal, or semi-illegal, small-scale but highly-polluting plants being set up throughout the country.

Some local authorities are imposing draconian rules. For example, Beijing has restricted the total number of new car licence plates to 240,000 for 2011. This is against an actual 720,000 new licences in 2010! There are also restrictions on rush hour ban for non-Beijing registered vehicles and movement of cars to particular days of the week.

At the 17th Congress of CCP, October 2007, the next 5-10 year objectives were:

1.      Economy: Shifting economic growth from speed to quality.

2.      Development: Developing scientific, sustainable and people-oriented approach to development.

3.      Energy & environment: Improving energy and environmental conservation: resource efficient, environment friendly and renewable.

4.      Global relationships: Harmonious development in the world context.

Objective 3 is largely about the environment.

In 2009, China updated its national plan to further cope with the issue of climate change. Despite not signing any international agreement, China has set itself very ambitious targets in terms of CO2 emission, and per capita carbon footprint. China has official anti-pollution targets at national, provincial and regional level in place since 2007. A generous subsidy will help sales of low-polluting cars in 13 big cities and large solar-power projects will get a 50-70% subsidy. Beijing already has several measures to reduce private car traffic. In September 2011 it is considering introducing congestion charges (like London). Greenpeace China is one of the largest NGOs in China and is seen to be an ally rather than an opponent (as it is in many other countries).The 12th five-year plan(2011-2015) outlines major initiatives regarding the environment:

  • Energy efficiency and environment services to be priority industries for the first time.
  • 3tr yuan for environment protection (twice previous period)
  • Carbon intensity target to be set (sort of national carbon footprint)
  • Environment tax on heavy polluters
  • Mandatory carbon trading at regional level
  • Other measures such as shift away from GDP-based performance evaluation.

Early in 2014, several new or revised initiatives were announced:


On the infrastructure page we have already covered most of the advances being made to reduce old-technology coal-fired electricity generation that not only spew out enormous amounts of carbon dioxide but also contribute to acid rain and replace it by either high-technology coal-plants or renewables such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar power. Although China has only 20 nuclear plants, 28 are under construction early in 2014. In August 2011, China and the US signed an agreement to share joint research on clean coal power technology, which is only just as they are not only the two largest producers of CO2 but also with the highest increases in 2010. In the meantime, Russia is investing in new hydro-electric power plants in Eastern Siberia for export to China, while China is upgrading its national grid to the tune of $250 billion over several years.

By 2020, China plans to have over 500GW of renewable power, up from 250GW, a doubling in a decade.In January 2012, it announced a new offshore wind farm to be installed that will provide 300 MWatts, this will be expanded to 5 GWatts (the equivalent of 5 nuclear stations) by 2015. By then the total wind generated capacity will be 100 GWatts.


China is monitoring the status of glaciers on the Tibetan plateau. Apparently not long ago there were over 4,000 lakes, now they are down to 3,000.

There is a whole raft of central government legislation regarding the treatment of water from manufacturing and chemical plants. Western environmental companies such as Veolia and Purac are big in China. Factories will install water treatment plants when forced to. But, according to some investigators, as soon as attention moves elsewhere, the owners will turn the treatment plants off saving electricity with local officials not only turning a blind eye but warning them if they hear a central government inspector is on the way!

Nevertheless progress is being made. Not least through people power. Increasingly, the public is raising protest and inviting journalists from Beijing to see for themselves. The Internet also helps in that savvy folks will raise alerts that environmental activists will track and often take up with central government departments. Hefty fines are imposed when culprits are found. But sometimes these are less than the cost of either installing or running the treatment plants!


Any visitor to any of the big cities in China will have noticed the smog that hangs over the landscape sometimes obscuring the top of the many skyscrapers. However, China now has tougher legislation regarding car exhausts than anyone else including California.

China has planted more trees than any other nation. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) data shows that China increased the extent of forests between 1990 to 2005 (and has done even more since then) by 40m hectares, while India increased its forests by only 3.7m hectares. This increase nearly offset Brazil’s reduction of 42m hectares. China’s forest area reached 175 million hectares in 2006, raising the country’s forest coverage to 18.21 percent, compared with 12 percent in 1981.

Nevertheless, China’s forest coverage is only 61.5 percent of the international average and its per capita forest area only 25 percent. But since then a few more million trees have been planted, averaging 1 million pa or around 4m hectares pa. BTW – Brazil is losing 3m hectares of forest pa. Some cynics say that the Chinese army plant a lot of trees and with 2.5m soldiers, one per soldier is a large number. Be that as it may, a tree is a tree whether planted by a soldier or a civilian! In fact, since 1981 every citizen is required to plant at least 3 trees pa.  High school graduates celebrate by planting a tree.

See also: 5m greener vehicles on the Chinese streets by 2020


As Western consumers know, much of our waste that does not go into landfills end up in places like China to be recycled. In fact, many of the container ships that deliver clothing, toys, and electronic appliances to western ports return laden with containers full of rubbish.

In this age of scary headlines about disappearing Arctic polar caps and climate change, it’s reassuring to see the two richest business people in China are both in environmentally-friendly businesses. One is electric car battery and electric car tycoon Wang Chuanfu, born into a farming family, as one of the richest men in China. He has a 5.1 billion dollar fortune. Another is paper recycling queen Zhang In, whose Nine Dragons paper recycling firm imports recycled paper and sends it back as packaging for exports.China is also the world’s leader in producing plastic carrier bags. However there is a worldwide campaign to reduce their usage. But you can be sure the Chinese will think of some other way to recycle and reuse plastic!

In conclusion

China is very aware that it is a major source of pollution. The leadership had deemed it was a necessary evil.  But as this page shows, it is now trying to make amends and is spending a vast amount to compensate  By contrast, even though India is also aware it is a major source of pollution, it has not reached a stage of development where it has surplus funds to do much about it, even if it had the will.

Note that many of the ‘green’ technology require the use of rare earths. China has a near monopoly of these minerals, though large deposits have been found elsewhere such as Greenland and Kazakhstan. And other countries with known deposits are beginning (or restarting) mining operations

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40 Responses to “‘Greening’ of China”

  1. I don’t want to appear picky but I think China leaders’s position on global warming runs parallel to that on democracy. They will do what is right only so far as it does not interfere with growth and the maintenance of their control.

    They are smart. They must know that this is self-defeating in the long run. But they believe that cutting back on growth would be self-defeating in the short run.

    I wonder whether Sir George Cox will be considering China in his report on short-termism for the Labour party.

    • David – once again you’re probably right. But tell me which politician or national leader in which country does not favour short to long term? And in some cases, not only for his/her party but for his/her own political future!

      Perhaps you will pass on both your comments and ref to my website/blog to Sir George.

  2. China may increase energy efficiency but with growth it will increase emissions.

    Here’s the bottom line. The atmosphere already contains too much greenhouse gas and we are adding to it every day. The IPCC says that there will be “catastrophic” climate change unless annual emissions are falling by 2018. (And that’s probably optimistic.) Today’s Guardian reports an International Energy Agency statement forecasting six degrees of temp rise by 2100 if we continue business as usual. By the way, that’s NOT the most scary projection I’ve seen.

    China’s emissions are already unsustainable. Per capita it’s less polluting than the West but, guess what?, the climate doesn’t care about fairness. Too much in aggregate is too much and China stands to suffer at least as much as the West.

    The West and the BRICs need to improve energy efficiency, decarbonise their energy supply systems, etc. We know what’s needed. We know it’s possible. We don’t know how to make the politics work and that may yet kill us.

    • David – thank you. I agree. This webpage is not trying to defend China, merely trying to inform readers that China is trying very hard to balance further economic development and improving the environment.


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