In the Gobi, clues to China’s shifting position on climate change

While China’s commitment to combating climate change has long been contentious, the government now recognizes that an environmental strategy and economic growth go hand in hand.

By: /
March 17, 2016
A worker inspects solar panels at a solar farm in Dunhuang, 950km northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province, September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Development and industrialization have dramatically transformed China from a less developed country to the globe’s second largest economy; the downside is this growth has been accompanied by a rapid degradation of its environment. China is the largest emitter of CO2 – it surpassed the U.S. in 2002 – as well as the top emitter of GHG. But in this generation, an unprecedented number of Chinese now have the ability to choose where they live and work, and the capacity to invest financially in their communities. Environmental quality, and specifically the condition of the air, is discussed openly. Research documents link pollution to shorter lifespans and higher health costs. 

The Chinese government has made great strides in measuring pollution and implementing alert systems. With measurement, urban alerts have increased in frequency and level. As the Chinese Daily reported on Christmas Day 2015, approximately 50 cities in northern and eastern China had issued air pollution alerts.  

Despite the view of many in the West, dealing with climate change is becoming more and more important for the Chinese government, as exemplified by the transformation of the Gobi Desert in recent years.

A case study: the Gobi Desert  

The Gobi is the fifth-largest desert in the world and Asia's largest, spanning 1.3 million square kilometres. It stretches from the North China Plain to Mongolia and the Taklimakan Desert, much of it not sandy but exposed bare rock. The expansion of the Gobi is an often-overlooked element of the growth of urban smog; deforestation, overgrazing and depletion of water have quickened the pace of desertification, adding to the deterioration of air quality.

Dust storms from the Gobi have increased in frequency in recent decades, affecting Beijing, eastern China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea. A cocktail of toxic pollutants, comprised of heavy metals, often accompany the storms. Also in the mix are viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products and hormone-mimicking phthalates. This cornucopia of carcinogens blown in from the Gobi received sparse attention in the media during Beijing’s frequent “red alert” measures meant to deal with smog towards the end of 2015.  

However, the Gobi Desert is far more than a contributor to environmental degradation. It has a crucial role to play in China’s adaptation and mitigation of the impacts of its industrial development and to global climate change. Scholars have documented how desertification trends have paralleled the rise, decline and collapse of China’s historical dynasties. During the reversal of desertification, dynasties founded in Mongolia and northern China flourished, and governed most of ancient China. In contrast, desertification in northern China and the Mongolian Plateau allowed southern dynasties to conquer or share dominion with northern dynasties. During desertification, biological productivity also typically decreased, leading to periods of conflict.

The Gobi is considered a climate hotspot, like the poles, where climate change is accelerating faster than elsewhere. The Chinese government has recognized the opportunities it offers, and is transforming the Gobi Desert using its natural resources of sun and wind to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. While visiting the Gobi in August 2015, I saw firsthand measures taken in China’s own self-interest, perceived as necessary to protect economic growth (and by implication its internal stability).   

Near Jiayuguan City, in Guansi Province in northwestern China, I found the Jiayuguan Pass, the western entrance of the Han Dynasty’s section of the Great Wall of China, and the highway running east to the city of Dunhuang. About an hour from Jiayuguan, beyond galloping wild Bactrian camels, I came across an abandoned security and toll stop (a sign of the relaxing regulations on trade and travel). A series of wind farms emerged on the horizon; soon, they extended as far as the eye could see, interspersed with solar panels, wind towers, patches of green, and clusters of modern housing.  

Before 2011, barren desert dominated here. But by 2012, thousands of square metres were covered with grids of photovoltaic panels. Jinquan, the prefect that includes Dunhuang, was a suddenly a base for more than 50 energy companies. Hosting the world’s largest concentration of wind farms, the area had a capacity to generate 6GW of wind energy. By 2014, solar panels covered about three times as much of the Gobi as three years earlier. And by April 2015, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China’s capacity from solar panels was over 33 GW.   

Space and sunlight are not limiting factors to expansion, as there are more than 3,500 sq. km of unused land around Dunhuang receiving about 3,250 hours of sunlight per year. From July 2014 to May 2015, no fewer than five major projects saw groundbreaking or construction in the region.   

However, there are technical obstacles to overcome. Spring sandstorms cover solar panels and render them useless until cleaned by workers using feather brushes; a two-day process. Further, wind turbines are being built faster than the national grid can erect high-voltage power lines to carry the electricity to cities. On the windiest days, only half the power generated can be transmitted. 

China invested $US83 Billion in renewable energy in 2014 (more than twice the U.S.). Not surprisingly, China posted the largest gains worldwide in power generation from renewables.  

The evolution of China’s climate change position 

The position of the Chinese government on climate change has long been contentious. Western skepticism increased in part because China was not required to limit GHG under terms of the Kyoto agreement. China largely brushed aside international concerns and internal environmental protest was suppressed.  

However, in recent years, there has been a shift in the Chinese government’s response. China’s position has evolved, with its first Climate Change Program in 2007, its response in the lead-up to and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and its November 2008 introduction of a national carbon-trading scheme. The November 2014 U.S.-China Bilateral Agreement paved the way to the broader and deeper commitment that followed. 

In June 2015, China said it would halt the rise in its heat trapping emissions within 15 years, and boost its share of non-fossil fuel energy use to 20 percent by 2030 – a commitment similar to the one made in the joint U.S. agreement. By October 2015, China had shut down 17,000 firms for pollution offences and ordered another 28,600 to halt operations in its bid to clear the hazardous smog. 

“China is largely motivated by its strong national interests to tackle persistent air pollution problems, limit climate impacts and expand its renewable energy job force,” Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute, told The Guardian. China, now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, can meet its climate pledge if it continues its renewables push. Furthermore, the Chinese leadership pledged that it would work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date than 2030. By 2040, led partly by China, solar power could account for one-third of new global electricity generation. 

Covering incidents and critiquing official responses to environmental incidents is now a feature of official Chinese media. Healthy environments to live, work, and vacation are elements of expressions of Chinese consumer choice, including in Chinese Real Estate flyers. To a generation that has known only affluence and opportunity, environmental degradation is a step backward worthy of protest. How China can manage these expectations, beyond the strictly monetary, will be a factor in the future legitimacy of the ruling party elites, and the internal stability of the Chinese state. 

 The targets pledged by China at COP21 in Paris last December reflect these internal demands. They were China’s first international agreements committing it to absolute emission level limits. China’s intent is also reflected in its decision to focus on the development of green finance during its chairing of the G20 in Hangzou in September 2016.  

In a post Paris Conference panel of the Asia Society, Kevin Rudd, former Australian PM and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the Paris outcome was made possible because of the domestic policy changes in China, and were a reflection of the need for China to take on more of a global leadership role on the issue in advance of hosting the G20.

Chinese citizens, Rudd explained, are very active “on ‘what is happening to the air that I breathe,’ and ‘what is happening to my local environment.’ The Chinese Communist Party has a view that unless it’s responsive to these baseline, deeply felt concerns of the people…[it will be faced with] a long-term legitimacy problem.”

Significantly, given the link between Chinese economic growth and global growth, recent economic research supports asserted that a reduction in carbon-intensive activity would not prevent China from reaching its economic growth goals. “Using carbon pricing in combination with energy price reforms and renewable energy support, China could reach significant levels of emission reduction without undermining economic growth,” said Valerie Carpus, co-author of Carbon emissions in China: How far can new efforts bend the curve? 

Of course, the massive government and private investments in green technology in China create opportunities for foreign firms, including Canada. The number of required projects and their economies of scale are not found elsewhere. Canadian firms and Global Affairs Canada have the opportunity to step-up their efforts – long identified as a priority – to target opportunities in the sector. These projects also provide Canada (and other signatories) with opportunities to investment in international mitigation projects for consideration, as part of our own Cop 21 commitments.  The interest of both China and Canada to enhance cooperation in the sector was illustrated in the February 25 bilateral agreement to promote and fund ‎innovation-driven collaborations. 

The Gobi Desert long ago lost its role as host of trade fairs and a conduit for inter-continental trade. Dunhuang, 31,200 sq. km in area, has only 1,400 sq. km that is actually habitable. However, in this age of rising concern for climate change and growing green economy, the Gobi Desert has a new reason d’être and prominence, as a global solar and wind energy hub. As Dunhuang City official Wang Yu, the vice director of economic planning said while advocating new projects, “It’s the Gobi Desert, there’s not much other use for it.”