Air pollution begins here

Air pollution presents an opportunity to revisit China’s high emission growth path. During the Warsaw Climate Change Conference, delegates need to prepare ground for further action from China.

Over the last year, air pollution has become, by far, the most significant force re-shaping China’s environmental governance. After recieving dramatic public outcry two winters ago, Beijing’s signature hazy sky has been constantly making headlines on domestic and international media.

Facing mounting public pressure from Beijing, as well as many other regions in China’s populous eastern provinces, the government published a comprehensive air pollution control plan in September of this year. Coal consumption control is featured heavily in the plan.

According to various evaluations, coal combustion is the leading cause of China’s air pollution. China’s coal consumption not only contributes to two thirds of the global CO2 emission growth in the past five years, but is also leading to systemic damage of the health of its citizens.

Pursuant with the call from the central government, four provinces (two of them – Shandong and Hebei are China’s top and fourth-largest coal consumers respectively) made individual pledges to peak and decline their coal consumption by 2017 – the first time in Chinese history that negative coal consumption targets have ever been mandated. Added together, these four provinces will need to collectively reduce 83 million ton of coal in the next four years, a sharp annual average decline of 6% This is even more significant given that these provinces still kept growing at 6-8% over the past five years.

In this context, Warsaw provides a good opportunity to communicate and evaluate the climate implication of tackling air pollution on an international stage. Such framing is, in fact, already one step ahead domestically in China. On November 5, the NDRC held its regular pre-COP press conference and outlined China’s position and expectation for the Warsaw negotiation. Although a climate change themed meeting, more than a third of the Q&A time was occupied by topics in relation to air pollution.

This implies strong media and public perception, which already starts to see the two issues in the same vein. As recognised by Minister Xie Zhenhua, China’s veteran head of climate delegation, air pollution and greenhouse gas emission share largely the same root cause and source – namely the country’s reliance on heavy industry and its addiction to burning coal. China again finds itself a very strong domestic driver to reduce its emission and shift away from coal.

As China prepares to slash coal, climate benefits will inevitably follow. According to the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency's 2013 Trends in Global CO2 emission report, the slowdown of China’s energy appetite in 2012 has already contributed to the slowest global emission growth. This trend, predicted by the Agency is likely to continue. If that is the case, it will have considerable implication on the way from Warsaw to the 2015 Paris COP.

Warsaw is therefore a good opportunity to foster this emission trend and bring it down even further. The global community should encourage their Chinese counterparts to put air pollution and greenhouse gas mitigation equally on the agenda. Strong connections between the two issues should be facilitated and communicated back to Beijing, so that a mutually reinforcing loop could be created in domestic policy making.

Li Shuo is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.

Image: Part of Greenpeace's projections onto six Polish coal power stations before the start of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference COP19/CMP9. The projection reads in Chinese: "Air pollution begins here!" © Konrad Konstantynowicz / Greenpeace