The Future of China’s Energy Challenge


NANJING — It lasted a week. Chai Jing’s viral exposé on the rampant scale of Chinese air pollution, “Under the Dome,” was online for a mere seven days, provoking a contradicting flurry of praise and criticism from public officials before it suddenly vanished behind a thick cloud of smog. To call the former CCTV reporter’s documentary an exposé may seem like a misnomer; after all, the poor quality of China’s air is obvious to almost anyone who steps or looks outside. However, considering the massive response the film generated among the public, it seems plausible that the full extent of the problem was either unknown, ignored, or both.

This presents a problem, especially as the Chinese government has recently updated its environmental protection law that includes sections on increasing public participation, information access, and public interest litigation regarding environmental issues. If that’s the case, should this film have even been necessary, let alone blocked? It is often held that public interest and participation is necessary for the success of an environmental movement, even in China. However, how much and how fast is likely an ongoing debate within the Communist Party, hence the back-and-forth response to the film.

Yet this is not just a China issue; it’s a global issue. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2013 International Energy Outlook, China consumed 47% of world coal in 2010 (the United States, in second place, consumed 14%).  Such a heavy reliance on coal (also part of the focus of “Under the Dome”) does nothing to help limit CO2 and produces particulate emissions that increase global warming and choke the air. It also sends other countries the message that they can continue to burn coal and other fossil fuels because, well, at least they’re not as bad as China.

This sort of “differentiated responsibility” thinking that killed the Kyoto Protocol needs to be adjusted to a greater or lesser extent by the time that the world gathers in Paris this December for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which many see as our last good chance to establish a universal binding agreement on climate change. But China needs to turn further away from fossil fuels if we want to expect other developing countries, such as India, to agree to limit their own consumption. Indeed, the same is true for the United States and the example it sends to developed and developing countries alike.

On that note, however, there is some hope. Last November, the U.S. and China mutually announced pledges wherein the U.S. would reduce its carbon emissions by just 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2025, while by 2030, China would peak emissions and have 20% of its energy come from zero-emissions sources. Yet words are not enough. China needs to demonstrate a stronger, committed physical transition to renewable energy sources if the international community is to be convinced. In light of Paris, domestic air quality, and global climate change, China’s transition to renewable energy is important. The world depends on it.