Li Yan is the head of Greenpeace East Asia's climate and energy team. She recently attended the Durban climate change talks, and in returning to Beijing spoke to The Diplomat about China's climate change policy and the direction the nation is taking in regards to energy use and renewable energies.
The Diplomat: What are your thoughts on the recent climate change accord reached in Durban? Do you feel it's a good step towards a comprehensive treaty or a step in the wrong direction?
Li Yan: The world urgently needs a fair, ambitious and legally binding (FAB) deal to prevent climate catastrophe. Copenhagen should have delivered that deal. After two years in Durban there was some progress towards a FAB deal, with the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period confirmed. Countries also agreed to start negotiating for a new legally binding treaty that applies to all countries, including China, India and the U.S., which needs to be sealed no later than 2015.
As to the second part of your question: Yes, this is the right direction, and global climate negotiation now enters a new era. However, the process laid out in Durban is worryingly slow and with fatal loopholes. If this next big climate deal will be applicable only "from 2020," as the U.S. inserted in the Durban agreement, it can easily be delayed for more than a decade and we risk missing the window of opportunity to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.
The process to agree a comprehensive global climate treaty needs to be accelerated, and countries registered in such a binding treaty must honor their commitment.
The Diplomat: China is now the world's leading emitter of CO2. Do you feel China is doing enough to limit and lower such emissions? Do you feel China is taking adequate steps to tackle its global contribution to climate change? What steps would you recommend that China take to reduce or lower its CO2 emissions?
Li Yan: China has made impressive efforts to cut back its carbon emission growth, and it's fair to say that China is doing much better than many other countries, including industrialized ones. However, with the rapid growth of emissions, China needs – and has the capability – to do more.
China's 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) set binding targets to save energy and cut back traditional pollutant emissions. According to official calculations, this has led to 1.5 billion tons in carbon emission reductions. It was a good starting point and has sent a strong political signal to the government system, though at the end of 11th Five Year Plan, the final progress was quite difficult. But China almost achieved its 20 percent energy intensity reduction objective.
However in the 12th Five Year Plan, starting this year, the central government set an energy intensity reduction target at 16 percent (by end of 2015 based on 2010 levels) and a carbon intensity target of 17 percent. These goals aren't ambitious enough. This isn't sufficient to force local governments and industries to shift away from energy intensive growth models. Partly as a result of this rather low target, the first 10 months of 2011 only saw an energy intensity reduction of 1.6 percent, falling far behind the scheduled 3.5 percent reduction benchmark supposed to be achieved as the first year of the latest plan. There will be more difficulties for China in delivering its targets if it can't put a brake on its fast expansion of energy intensive industries and booming coal consumption.
Coal burning is the biggest single source of CO2 emissions in China. With heavy reliance on coal burning as an energy source – it accounts for around 70 percent of energy demands – China is now facing severe environmental and social problem as well as growing energy security concerns. Moving away from coal and introducing more renewable energy into its energy mix is an unavoidable direction for China. One ongoing discussion is whether or not China can, step by step, put absolute limits on its coal consumption.
The Diplomat: China is also expanding the amount of nuclear power plants it operates. Do you feel China can adequately secure and store the nuclear waste that will result?
Li Yan: Nuclear is deemed by many in China as the clean energy solution, but it's not. Environmental and safety issues must be taken into consideration in China's ambitious nuclear development plan.
There is currently no clear law or regulation to manage nuclear power development and mitigate its risk. The nuclear safety code is still being compiled after Fukushima. The Fukushima tragedy was another sad example of the fact that there's barely anything humanity can do to stop the dangerous impact of a nuclear plant accident caused by natural disasters. China's newly designed plants are mostly located near large populations, and under climate change circumstances, extreme weather events could be more frequent and severe, which makes it even more risky and challenging to ensure public safety.
The Diplomat: Much has been made in the west of China's investments in "green energy." Do you feel China has assumed a leadership role in green technology? Do you feel China can use such technology to make a dent in its CO2 emissions?
Li Yan: According to a recent U.N. Environment Program report, China has surpassed the United States in renewable energy investment in 2010, making it now the world's largest. This has created a buzz that China is leading the race to renewable energies. Clearly, China is taking the lead in many areas of green energy development. In 2010, China's wind power installation capacity was about 42GW, which places China as the biggest installation country globally.
Most of the renewable energy installation is in western areas, since the natural sources are better than the eastern parts.
However, there are still bottlenecks that stop China from being an even bigger utilizer of renewable energy. The biggest one is the difficulty in grid access. Nearly 30 percent of wind turbines established have no access to the state grid, and similar problems are emerging in solar power generation as well. Technology isn't the problem, but more the lack of willingness and action from the grid company. If China could solve the grid connection issue, renewable energy will play a more important role in China's energy mix, which will definitely contribute to its CO2 reduction.
For e-mail updates on climate change: subscribe here.