China Cleans Up Its Act… But Is It Soon Enough?

In the United States, climate change is still a major debate topic.  Saturday, millions participated in the “March for Science” movement on Earth Day.  Few other countries in the world are having this debate… because nearly every other country has already acknowledged the problem.  Surprisingly, the country making the largest effort to reduce the effects of global climate change is China.

A recent New York Times article highlighted China’s commitment to combating climate change.  The article indicated that China is poised to take over the U.S. role as a climate leader.  While they may still have the highest emissions on the planet, Chinese leaders actually acknowledge climate change as a serious problem.  That puts them one-up on the U.S.  China is also actively taking immediate steps to solve this problem but is it enough?

The Problem:

Before we discuss China’s efforts (which are many) and their effect (which has been great), it’s important to put the problem in perspective.  NASA’s Global Climate Change website demonstrates the effect that the industrial age has had on a global scale.

The sea level has risen more quickly in the last 20 years than it has during the previous century.  Globally, 2016 has been the warmest year on record.  The oceans have absorbed much of the excess heat, warming significantly over the past 30 years.  Arctic ice sheets have been steadily shrinking, losing nearly 90 cubic miles between 2002 and 2006 alone.  The breadth and thickness of arctic sea ice have also declined over the past 30 years.  Finally, the increased carbon dioxide in the air is transferring to the oceans. Carbon dioxide causes acidification, which is killing coral reefs and hurting the oceanic food chain.  Over the past two years, a major bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef killed 30 percent of its coral and it is getting worse.

In a recent SCUBA trip to Thailand, I witnessed the direct results of climate change to the ecosystem in the Andaman Sea.  I saw huge stretches of dead coral.  Rising water acidity and temperatures have removed an entire link in the food chain.  Add to that Thailand’s overfishing problem and things only get worse.  Sadly, this problem is not endemic to the South Pacific.  The direct effects of climate change are visible everywhere.

So, What is China Doing?

China emits 29 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide and relies on coal as their main source of electricity by a wide margin.  However, the Chinese government has committed to reducing emissions, promising an emission peak in 2030.  Recent estimates indicate that they may reach their peak by 2025.  Additionally, Chinese coal consumption has begun to decline.

There are plenty of political and economic explanations as to why China is pursuing greener policies.  Regardless, the bottom line is that both the Chinese government and its people understand that reducing climate change is worth the investment.

China leads the world in solar power, generating 77.42 gigawatts by the end of 2016.  While this is only about one percent of the country’s total energy output, China is continuing to devote resources to solar energy technology.  China plans to add over 110 gigawatts purely through solar energy over the next three years.  To do this, the Chinese government has budgeted nearly $364 billion into renewable power generation by 2020.

Last year, wind energy increases in china accounted for over 42 percent of global wind power growth.  China is currently ranked fourth in the world for installed wind energy capacity.  Additionally, they are first in the world for new installation.  A recent study also finds that wind could take over a large portion of current capacity.

But… Is It Enough?

In the past seven years, over 40 percent of the coral reefs in the ocean have died.  Extreme weather events have become increasingly frequent.  My home, New Orleans, still has scars from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  In September, the world’s largest coral was toppled by the largest typhoon to hit Taiwan in 21 years.  “Big Mushroom,” off the coast of Green Island, Taiwan, was over 1,000 years old and survived two impacts by submarines during World War II.   Taiwanese officials fear that increased extreme weather will continue to cause more damage, especially as coral weaken and die.   Bloomberg published a Nightmare Scenario for Florida’s Coastal Homeowners, where it discusses weather effects due to climate change and how they will impact significant portions of the U.S. population.  How much longer can the global population endure the effects of climate change?

Energy production grows at a rate of about 10 percent each year in China.  Much of this growth is covered by renewable energy, but emissions are still growing.  Even if China is able to meet the optimistic emissions peak target of 2025, global emissions will still be climbing for the next eight years.  With the current U.S. administration not poised to mirror China’s efforts, the rise in global emissions may continue well after 2025.

If we were to completely stop carbon emissions right now, it would take 10 years for emissions to return to pre-industrial revolution levels.  It would take 15 to 20 years for the weather effects to become less severe and temperatures to decline, allowing polar ice to begin to recover.  It would take over 30 years for oceanic acidity to begin to decline.  By then, 90 percent of the world’s coral will be dead.  Extinction events will have occurred on a massive scale, as species like the polar bear, Adelie penguin, and North Atlantic cod are already seriously threatened by climate change.

Though the prediction appears dire, and it is, China is making a strong, concerted effort to mitigate the effects.  Hopefully, their efforts spur even greater efforts from the rest of the world.  While some experts say we have passed the point of no return, others remain optimistic.  Either way, continuing to ignore the problem is out of the question.

By: Paul Hunter Waldoff