Books: from China, a pioneering piece of work

Zhuang Guiyang’s A Low-Carbon Economy is part of Chinese efforts to catch up – on its own accord – in sustainable development, writes Feng Gao. Despite limited options now (and a hint of pessimism), a low-carbon transformation is inevitable.

A Low-Carbon Economy: China’s Growth in a Changing Climate
Zhuang Guiyang
China Meteorological Press, 2007

Zhuang Guiyang, deputy-secretary of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) Sustainable Development Institute, presented me with a copy of his new book, A Low-Carbon Economy: China’s Growth in a Changing Climate, during the recent climate change talks in Bali. I read it in a single sitting.

Currently, the concept of a low-carbon economy is a new one, both internationally and within China. It awaits recognition both by governments and the people, and subsequently adoption as a firm strategic choice. Undeniably, the scientific conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report have become part of international discourse, and the policy-makers and citizens of every nation are clear about the circumstances and the crisis that the world faces.

Humanity must act together to meet these challenges, and a low-carbon economy is the inevitable choice. The author grasps this theme as the basis of his investigation, with the hope that this will be accepted quickly by China’s policy-makers at all levels.

Climate change is a crisis for all of humanity, but the crisis China faces is an even more complicated and grave one. China is currently under pressure from a number of sources – one of which is international pressure to control greenhouse-gas emissions. The third chapter of this book goes beyond issues of energy and climate change to explore low-carbon economies within the context of China’s sustainable development. This key chapter is the heart of the book.

Recently, I read an article written by Martin Jacques, an Englishman, saying that the rise of China will have a much greater impact on the world overall than the events of September 11, 2001. This has been a common view for some years. I live in Germany, and although I know Germans do not burn Chinese shoes as they do in Spain, there is still a lot of anger at China here. China, Germans say, is too big, too populous, its people too keen to become well-off; they work too much and too hard; the government is too efficient; it exports too much; costs are too low, it has stolen too many peoples’ livelihoods, and so the country is in too much “conflict” with the world.

This point is also demonstrated by the Chinese government and businesses scouring the world, buying resources and energy at high prices and searching for export markets. Meanwhile, the Chinese mode of economic expansion is too coarse, consuming too much energy and too many resources, causing too much pollution, with the people paying too high a social cost.

In particular, the author quotes the incisive discussion by Ma Kai, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC),  regarding China’s resource and environmental issues and economic strategy — which I find entirely convincing. If China carries on this way, it looks a bit like suicide.

China will soon overtake the United States to become the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases – and once that happens it will take us half a century or longer to lose the label. This alone means that China is in for long-term criticism. So, we must learn to take that criticism. It will not matter how wisely our government acts, how advanced our human rights, how transparent our military, how good the quality of our products, how accessible health care is – and at the rate that China is advancing, all of this can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. But our status as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases will not be shed in the short term. Apart from doing its best to explain, China can only take what measures it is able to in order to face up to the world.

China is currently undergoing a period of compressed industrialisation. What took two centuries in the US and Europe has been completed in five decades. But a material price has been paid for this development and wealth. China today is in the mid-stages of industrialisation, with astounding economic results achieved on the back of the blood and sweat of workers and the exploitation of the land. China must find a new mode of growth if it is to pass through a bottleneck caused by restrictions of environment, energy and resources.

Colonialism is, of course, unthinkable. The conditions and opportunities for that kind of exploitation no longer exist and, even if they did, China has never had the type of national spirit and will that colonialism would require. So there are two options: to use the unique soft power of Chinese civilisation to expand its living space, as Zheng He did five hundred years ago on his voyage of friendship and exchange; or to develop our internal potential.

If low-carbon economies are the inevitable choice when faced with climate change, then without doubt a peaceful rise, the scientific view of development and the strategic policy decisions of the 17th Party Congress in 2007 are a part of a counter-attack by way of a national revival. The strategic focus is to peacefully break through the limitations we face. 

Every nation of the world (with the possible exception of the US) faces the same situation. The United Kingdom has played a key role in leading the world towards a low-carbon economy; fortunately, China has started to take major steps to catch up, but it seems not to be taking the initiative. Zhuang’s book, from title to content, can be seen as part of China’s efforts to catch up – of its own accord. I would like to congratulate the author on this pioneering piece of work.

I am currently participating in preparatory work for talks on future climate-change mechanisms at the office of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and am greatly interested in China’s contributions, particularly those of domestic academics. In Zhuang’s new book, I particularly appreciate his introduction of the UK’s experience, the analysis of energy subsidies and reform, and the sections analysing global carbon markets. However, while I do not dislike the book’s sections on current routes for development of a low-carbon economy in China, the energy targets of the 11th Five Year Plan, and the development of a low-carbon economy in the post-Kyoto era, I feel that they raise more questions than they answer.  The author presents the inevitability of the transformation to a low-carbon economy, but methods of achieving this seem to remain limited and there is a faint sense of pessimism.

The author analyses six routes China could take to a low-carbon economy. The familiar ideas of economic restructuring, increasing energy efficiency and adjusting the structure of energy sources are covered. A highly innovative method, restricting luxurious consumption is mentioned also, but unfortunately only in a cursory fashion and it is not explored to its full. A fifth method, carbon sequestration, is of such limited potential that it may as well not be mentioned. The sixth, international cooperation is, of course, the most popular topic of discussions.

International technical cooperation has got off to a difficult start, with very little progress made, and it will be the main focus of future climate negotiations. The majority of international mechanisms outside of the Framework Convention have political goals, and are more about appearances than results. It is hard to say if they come to be of any value. We must wait and see.

When discussing the construction of post-Kyoto mechanisms, the author echoes the theme of the book when he says that “the success of future climate-change mechanisms will depend on the extent to which they assist developing countries’ switch to low-carbon economies and give genuine consideration to energy security and development issues”. This is a new way of putting things.

In June 2007, China’s State Council issued a program for the saving of energy and reduction of emissions, which I regard as a classic example of the combination of climate and environmental goals with economic objectives – and I am keen to see articles or books which analyse that program. In the coming four or five decades, China will see a population equivalent to that of Europe move from rural areas to the cities. How can we build hundreds of low-carbon cities? Something tells me there are many more books to be written.

Feng Gao is director of the legal department of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat.