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During COP25: Looking into Potential for Low Carbon Growth in China; By Raakhee Suryaprakash

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Image courtesy: UNFCCC

Article No. 02/2019

The climate summit kicks off for in Madrid today. It’s perhaps the ultimate irony that on Day 1 of COP25 (25th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC) Russia will start supplying natural gas (methane, a.k.a.’ blue fuel’, a powerful greenhouse gas) via its massive 3,000km long Power of Siberia gas pipeline to China. Both presidents Vladimir Putin & Xi Jinping are to take part in the launching of the pipeline on December 2, 2019. This is the first time Russia is supplying natural gas to a non-European nation.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is right when he says that on the pathway to the 1.5 degree world,

What is still lacking is political will. Political will to put a price on carbon. Political will to stop subsidies on fossil fuels. Political will to stop building coal power plants from 2020 onwards. Political will to shift taxation from income to carbon taxing pollution instead of people.

As UN members negotiate to tackle climate change and take climate action till December 13, 2019 in Spain, it’s a good time to assess the potential for low carbon growth in China. China is home to the top 13 of the 15 richest companies in Asia. Samsung of South Korea ranked the fifth richest and Reliance Industries Limited of India at No. 15 are the only exceptions to Chinese dominance.  Now this near monopoly offers the potential for Chinese companies to lead by example and adopt low carbon growth pathways and sustainable development as the means to hedge against global economic slowdown.

A report from the Energy Transitions Commission published on November 22, 2019 in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute shows that China can go carbon neutral by 2050 while still growing its economy.

The threat and weakness of global economic slowdown can become a strength and opportunity, if we use this transition period wisely to move towards sustainable development and work actively to reduce to carbon footprints of the industries, institutions and businesses that keep our lives going. There has been growing unrest across the globe. People have taken to the streets to protest various things from Hong Kong to Santiago, Iraq to Lebanon. The people’s agitation against the government in Chile led to the COP25 being shifted to Madrid. The Hong Kong protests led to an election mandate against Mainland China. The common theme in all these protests is the gaps in social justice.

Instead of betting on a faltering status quo, it is in the interest of the developing nations of Asia in particular and all nations in general to commit to sustainable development and a the pathway to the 1.5 degree world. This could lead to a equitable world. Agriculture and the welfare of rural populations is a major concern in Asia as it is everywhere in the global South as it remains the mainstay of a majority of the population.

Carbon-Fixing Growth in Rural China

In China, a report compiled by the Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant a think tank associated with the country’s Agriculture Ministry, highlights the worrying fact that the Chinese countryside is returning to poverty. This should ring alarm bells for the Chinese Communist Party as this can easily morph into civil unrest and political protest on the mainland. A low-hanging fruit to off-set this rural economic slowdown is policy that encourages restorative and regenerative farming. Organic farming and cultivation among man-made fruit forests to restore the earth and diversify the agricultural economy.  Encouraging sustainable tourism to rural destinations could also put cash back into rural communities as shown in Guangxi in South China. Ecological tourism developed there has to help shake off poverty and bucked the national trend according to a Xinhua report. By encouraging green breaks in rural communities and mindful treks in forests through policy and incentives the government can create new income streams and improve the mental health of their urban populations. Studies indicate that our human mind is geared to thrive in rural tranquility. Spending time in urban green spaces and in forests can improve mood and control hypertension which will help beat stress in workforces.

Local authorities in Lingyun County in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region have been working to develop ecological tourism taking advantage of the natural beauty around Haokun Lake. This has helped local communities shake off poverty and boosted the income of local residents. Ecological tourism has become a key industry in the region and has helped people escape the vicious cycles of poverty. From January to October 2019, the Haokun Lake area “has attracted about half million tourists with the tourism consumption of 142 million yuan (20.19 million U.S. dollars). A total of 709 people in Haokun Village of Lingyun have been lifted out of poverty. The poverty incidence in Haokun has now dropped to 13.11 percent.”

The People’s Liberations Army has also been put to work to plant forests and reverse deforestation and desertification in China. Millions of saplings have been planted in degraded areas across China. In addition to fixing carbon, new forests can also generate employment – in its upkeep and by making rural communities vested in preserving the new forests by making them financial stakeholders. If more local species fruit trees are planted then it will go a long way in combatting hunger and ensuring food security.

Electric Vehicles and Maglev Technology to the Rescue

In the optimistic, solutions focused documentary 2040, which envisions a better world in 2040 by projecting the scale up of sustainable projects that are already solving the existential crises of our era, maglev (magnetic levitation) technology is mentioned as a game-changer. There is a race on between China and Japan for the fastest ‘maglev’ bullet train prototypes and technology. Recently a prototype body of the vehicle was unveiled in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao.

This Chinese bullet train prototype reached 373mph which outpaces flight speeds paving the way to a return to train travel. Maglev tech enables that these trains float above the tracks, which in turn reduces friction and increases speeds. These low emission long-distance travel innovations empowered by global movements of tågskry [train brag] and flygskam [flight shame] can reduce the carbon footprint of long-distance travel.

China is also a manufacturing hub for electric cars and buses. Many start-ups in the field are producing efficient and affordable electric vehicles. Chinese overseas developmental assistance is also enabling tech transfer and export of these electric vehicles to nations of the global south. Some successful examples include Cuba and some African nations.

As Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission puts it,

Given China’s central role in the global economy, its vast renewable energy resources, and its technological leadership in key industries, China is uniquely positioned to lead the global energy transition and to decarbonize its economy completely by 2050.

The World Meteorological Department report showed that 2019 was also a year of record-breaking levels of carbon emissions. Reports from various institutions studying global warming and climate change in the face of unprecedented levels of natural disasters across the globe warn that the ‘point of no return’ is near. Nations and governments need to commit to policy change to enable climate action and sustainable development committed to low-carbon and carbon neutral growth. With the United States abdicating leadership in green transitions China has the opportunity to lead by example.

(The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.)

(Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash, Founder-Director, Sunshine Millennium; Chief Programming Officer, REF and Associate Member, C3S)

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