China Is Doing A Lot Better On Climate Action Than Most People Realize

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A friend and on-and-off collaborator on IPOs and technical innovation initiatives just returned from a month in Beijing, where he was applying machine learning against video to speed training in sports. He’s a walker, so he covered up to 20 kilometers a day on the streets of the city. He made two observations that rung true for me, as someone who has been paying attention to China, but from afar.

Clear sky in Beijing
Picture courtesy of government of China

The first is that the air was clean and the sky was blue. While my friend was there during the cleaner air summer rather than the winter when the air quality is typically at its worst, the improvement in air quality in Chinese cities has been extraordinary over the past decade.

The second was that the streets were incredibly quiet, much quieter than the streets of Vancouver outside the coffee shop we were in as he told me about his trip. It wasn’t that the streets were empty. Quite the opposite. They were packed with cars and people. But virtually all the vehicles were electric. No engine noise. No diesel trucks rumbling past. No motorcycles revving. Just tire noise, which at the lower speeds typical to city streets is very quiet.

So clean air and quiet streets in the capital of China, a city of almost 22 million people. And that’s true of most other major Chinese cities as well. But a lot of people’s perspectives on China are stuck in the past, on this subject as on many others.

Right now, the US is embroiled in a trade war with China, with President Trump frequently attacking China. Infamously, he tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” One of the key arguments many climate change deniers return to over and over again, when all of their other arguments are rapidly debunked, is that it doesn’t matter what the US does because China is the largest emitter of CO2 in the world and is still opening up coal plants.

And that’s not just a Republican or climate change denier talking point. Joe Biden’s climate change action plan spends most of its foreign policy section pointing fingers at China, from its Belt and Road Initiative to its coal subsidies.

In Canada, we have an election coming up in October — for Americans, here’s my snarky guide to understanding the six week federal election — and the big action plan from the conservative leader on climate is exporting natural gas to China to displace coal generation there, but not much action in Canada. Yes, that’s as dumb as a box of hammers, but it’s consistent with North American perspectives on China. It’s not quite as bad as the Australian government saying that shipping coal to India was a climate plus, but it’s close.

But there’s another story on China, one consistent with my friend’s observations, and one that’s not being told in its entirety or understood in the west. China is likely on track to achieve its (relatively light) emissions targets a decade early. It’s bending the curve on emissions faster than any country in history, just as it ramped them up faster than any country in history.

Historical chart of percentage responsibility of different countries for CO2 emissions
Chart courtesy of Our World in Data, an open resource for major global issues

Yes, China produces about twice as much CO2e annually as the US, but about half as much per person. The US is responsible for twice as much CO2e historically in total as China, with only a quarter of China’s 1.4 billion citizens. While China has been catching up and is the leading country by emissions, let’s ensure that we understand that it’s 18% of the world’s population and the second biggest economy in the world after the US. 15% of the world’s GDP is from China right now.

Now that we understand the per capita and GDP aspects, and that China isn’t the primary nation responsible for global warming, just the one emitting the most CO2 today, let’s look at what China is doing about it.

China is turning on more low-carbon electrical generation annually in the form of hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear than any other country globally, and for each of those categories typically more than the next 2–3 countries. While its nuclear program has been less effective than its wind and solar programs, every TWh of nuclear generation displaces a TWh of coal and gas generation and should be welcomed. As Biden’s climate plan points out, China invested $3 in renewable energy for every $1 the US invested in 2017. In 2012, China commissioned the Three Gorges Dam, the largest capacity hydroelectric dam in the world, capable of generating about 100 TWh of low-carbon electricity every year. And it is building more high-voltage direct current transmission than any other country in the world to get that renewable electricity to major population centers with low losses.

Chart of projected wind, solar and nuclear generation in China
Chart by author

China has over 400,000 electric buses on its roads which are already displacing 270,000 barrels of oil demand a day, and naturally that means that all electric bus manufacturers with any global market share that registers are Chinese. Most countries with ‘big’ electric bus fleets have well under 270, three orders of magnitude fewer. China’s citizens also buy 50% of all electric cars sold in the world every year, and they have more car companies devoted to electrification than any other country or region in the world. China has about 30,000 kilometers of electrically powered high-speed rail with plans to extend that to about 38,000 kilometers, sufficient to girdle the Earth. No country is anywhere close, with Europe having a third of China’s high-speed rails and the US and Canada having exactly zero kilometers. And naturally, China is building most of the world’s electric bicycles and other small electric vehicles such as skateboards and scooters. China’s transportation electrification strategies surpass every country in the world, including electric car leader Norway.

Electric bus in Jishou, China
Image courtesy

China has the most aggressive reforestation program in the world, having planted an area the size of France with about 38 billion trees since 1990. As the recent trillion trees study pointed out, planting trees is one of the simplest and best mechanisms to draw down atmospheric CO2. Project Drawdown puts afforestation at #15 on its list of the top 100 methods of tackling global warming, ranked by cost vs benefit.

Chart of China's reforestation 1990-2016
Image courtesy of World Bank

China pretty much owns the global solar panel market. Eight of the largest 10 manufacturers of solar panels in the world are Chinese. Goldwind, the Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, is the second largest by market share in the world, recently taking over second spot from GE but still trailing Denmark’s Vestas.

And, of course, China, unlike the US, is signatory to the Paris Accord and is on track to vastly exceed its 2030 pledge, and meet or exceed its 2020 pledge. Of course, those pledges are inadequate to curb global warming, but China is likely to increase its targets radically, just as it is expected to double its solar and potentially wind generation targets for 2030. And it’s very worth pointing out that while China’s emissions rose 2.3% in 2018, the US’ emissions rose by 3.4% in the same year. And China has done more to address fossil fuel subsidies than the US has as well. In other words, as US politicians point fingers at China, the US is actually going in the wrong direction faster and doing less to bend the curve in the right direction.

While a lot of fingers are being pointed at China by people committed to both inaction and action in North America, the actual climate story in China is much different than most people realize. It should be looked to for inspiration in the fight on global warming and encouraged in its effort, not attacked and definitely not used as an excuse for inaction.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 708 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard