China May Be Greener Than We Think

In September at the United Nations, Chinese President Hu Jintao said that, by 2020, China would reduce carbon emissions by a "notable margin." Contrary to the popular notion that China is anything but green, Hu's speech may be backed up with action. It coincided with accelerated efforts to spend $713 million on "green" initiatives, such as the country's first "zero-emissions city" in Gansu province. It is a significant move as the Chinese government prepares for the worldwide climate-change conference that will take place in Copenhagen this December. But how seriously should the world take Chinese initiatives? NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu talked to Su Wei, Beijing's top climate-change negotiator at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to ask about China's official thinking on Copenhagen—and why Hummer is a "garbage brand." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Are you optimistic that developed and developing countries can reach a meaningful agreement at Copenhagen?
Su Wei: I've always been optimistic. We're making efforts for a fruitful result at Copenhagen, and that should not be difficult if there is enough political will. However, climate change isn't a problem that can be resolved within one or two years; it's a long-term task.

Is there enough political will within China's government?
The Chinese government has been paying a great deal of attention to the climate-change issue in recent years. The country has set up a climate-change leading group headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, and the Chinese government's attitude is serious. According to our plan, by the end of 2010, energy consumption per unit of GDP should be lowered by 20 percent compared with 2005. China's greenhouse-gas emissions will not increase endlessly; there will be a peak. When that peak will occur depends on many factors. However, I personally believe China's emissions will stop increasing by 2050. If everyone discharges an average per capita amount of 10 tons of carbon dioxide [as they do in] the United States, the earth will come to an end.

In parts of Guangdong province, authorities are reportedly turning a blind eye to the pollution produced by some export manufacturers so long as they can keep employing workers. Has the global financial crisis hurt environmental protection efforts?
In the implementation of the financial stimulus policy, we've given serious consideration to whether projects with high pollution levels and high emissions should be allowed to operate. Our plan in combating the crisis is consistent with promoting energy conservation, emissions reductions, and environmental benefit. In the plan we allocated $713 million for environmental protection, improvements in energy saving, and projects related to emissions reduction and developing renewable energy. This is quite a big proportion of the $590 billion stimulus package.

Can China avoid making the environmental mistakes that developed countries such as the U.S. made as they industrialized?
If developed countries say that they didn't [industrialize] the right way in the past—and that developing countries shouldn't follow in their footsteps—there's certainly some logic to that. China will not follow a pollution-intensive path, but it also faces limitations. This is why developing countries raised the question of developed countries providing financial and technology support to developing countries. There is the problem of basic survival needs. If a man doesn't have enough to eat or survive, how can he think about environmental protection? Maybe developed countries don't agree with this. But at the beginning stages of economic development, people have to think about survival first and environmental issues second.

China may be making some of the same mistakes as Americans in at least one respect: their love affair with cars. More and more Chinese are buying them.
Everyone is seeking better living standards, and they have the right to seek them. The question is how to provide better guidance.

Shanghai residents have to pay a lot of money for car licenses, much more than in other cities. Is this a viable method for limiting vehicle ownership?
Ordinary people would be the ones to feel the pinch in the end. Rich people wouldn't be restricted because they have money.

What is China's plan for developing renewable energy such as solar?
China is No. 1 in the world for hydropower, and for the scale of nuclear power-plant construction. A big wind-power plant also is starting operation in Gansu, with the ambition of having a wind-power equivalent of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam. According to the 11th five-year plan, renewable energy should reach 10 percent [of total energy resources] by 2010, and we've already attained 8 percent by 2008. The target for solar energy is 15 percent by 2020.

A Chinese firm has agreed to acquire the Hummer brand from General Motors, though the deal requires authorization from the Chinese government. Will the NDRC agree to it?
I don't know; I'm not privy to that [decision]. However, it's not simple for an enterprise to acquire a garbage brand such as Hummer.

Some Chinese people seem to be infatuated with Hummers.
I heard that one family organized a wedding in Chengdu that mobilized more than 100 Hummers [as the wedding motorcade]. Some people like the Hummer because they're rich. Maybe this is a cycle, and those people will realize eventually that the car is too costly and causes too much pollution. When Chinese get rich, some of them like to show off. I don't think it's necessary to drive such big cars simply for transportation. As a matter of fact, I think it's better not to produce big cars with engines bigger than 2.0 liters. The earth belongs to all people, and all should have the sense and responsibility to protect the earth.

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