It is by now no longer surprising to hear that China is the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions. Anyone spending a few days in Beijing, or just about any other medium-to-large Chinese city knows this intuitively. China claimed this ignominious distinction from the US in 2006, although of course in per capita terms, the US remains the world’s shameful leader. But the absolute amount is probably more important. By 2011, China accounted for 28% of the world’s CO2 emissions, while the US accounted for another 16%. And China’s contribution is growing at a much faster rate. While water pollution probably remains the most significant environmental challenge facing China locally, air pollution and CO2 emissions are what get noticed; air pollution is also more political, with all the attention China has been getting with last winter’s ‘airpocalypse,’ the dust-up concerning the US embassy’s rooftop air pollution monitoring in Beijing, and the increasingly public anger among urban residents over both the quality of their air and the government’s less-than-forthcoming attitude toward air quality information.
The air has gotten so bad in Beijing, though, that people are really getting fed up. In a recent New York Times article, Jiang Kejun, a Senior Research Scientist at the State Energy Institute, pointed out that: “The public concern about the air pollution has helped raise awareness about broader environmental problems. This will be a big help in pushing China.” Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong also added that, “Air pollution was the perfect catalyst. Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody — that’s government officials and company executives alike — breathes the same air.”
We’ve been noticing for some time the paradoxical nature of China’s energy development, with its huge reliance on coal, on the one hand, and its huge investments in solar, wind, and other ‘green’ energy resources, on the other. About 70% of China’s energy production is still derived from coal, with a vast supply of cheap and easily exploitable coal reserves available for many years to come. As both Jiang and Chan seem to suggest, just about the only positive outcome that could be found from this high coal dependence, as well as from the other high-emission sources such as automobiles, is the increasingly putrid air driving people to insist on a change of course. This, at least, is what scientists like Jiang are hoping for:
Mr. Jiang, who has studied energy emissions for two decades, has that grand shift in mind. China must expand wind, solar and nuclear power beyond current targets, and curb heavy industry, forcing carbon dioxide emissions to peak within a dozen years, he argues. If China’s effort is accompanied by big emissions cuts by rich countries, he says, then there is a good chance of avoiding rises in the global average temperature of beyond 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the preindustrial average, which most governments have agreed is a dangerous threshold.
Well, two cheers for smog, then. Maybe it will soon convince China’s officials that their calculation of prosperity vs. clean air is a false one in the long term.