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Can China find a balance between economic development and environment protection?

 

 
A girl makes her way to her house next to cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China, January 28. Photo: Reuters
 
During the Paris climate conference, questions have been raised as to whether China can “forsake” its economic growth for environmental protection in the following 10 years. This, however, is not an either-or question for Chinese researchers. 
 
“The answer to this question is definitive. Environmental protection is not contradictory to economic development. Low carbon emission is not a choice. It is a must-do thing,” Jiang Kejun, energy researcher at a Chinese government think tank, said in an interview with Sino-US.com.
 
“Environmental protection is being seen as an important factor in pushing forward China’s economy, instead of encumbering it,” he said, “If we do not do so, China’s economy will be left behind sooner or later, and being left behind means the competitiveness of China’s economy will be weakened, which will do no good to China.”
 
Drop in carbon emission not due to economic slowdown
 
A new measurement of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere released by University of East Anglia, UK and the Global Carbon Project this showed that global carbon emissions could decline by 0.6% in 2015, a departure from a decade of rising trend.  
 
The research, published in Nature Climate Change, attributes the decline to a reduction in China’s coal consumption as its economy slows and it moves to cleaner, renewable energy sources.
 
While Jiang, who was surprised at the decrease, agreed that an increase of cleaner, renewable energy use in China contributed to the reduction in coal consumption, he did not think it was related to China’s “economic slowdown”, a term he and his research team felt reluctant to use to describe China’s current economic situation. 
 
“2015 is quite a different year. Although there is still half a month left in 2015, it is so far very clear that China’s coal consumption will largely decrease. It has something to do with China’s current economic structure, instead of economic slowdown,” he said, “So far we think China’s economy is good.” 
 
One of the signs which shows it is China’s economic structure that matters instead of economic slowdown is the reduction in electricity consumption of China’s energy-intensive industries, often the main carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters, in October, according to an article published by chinanews.com on November 12. 
 
In the article, Shi Zihai, the spokesperson of National Development and Reform Commission, said that China’s electricity consumption was reduced by 0.24% in October compared with the previous month. This was attributed to a decline in electricity consumption by energy-intensive industries, he said. 
 
“Electricity consumption is an important measure of the growth of the economy. Usually, a country’s economy grows when the electricity consumption increases. But as China’s economy went into new normal, electricity consumption is not as accurate a gauge as before to evaluate the economy,” Shi said. 
 
While the electricity consumption of the service sector increased by 0.59% in October compared with the previous month, that of the industrial sector decreased by 1.29% over the same period. “This, in another way, is a good sign for China’s economy in terms of economic restructuring,” Shi noted.
 
The reduction in carbon emission was also attributed to the restructuring of the energy-intensive industries in recent years, according to Jiang, which may, however, lead to a “temporary slowdown” of China’s economic growth, as energy-intensive industries have traditionally been an important component of the Chinese economic growth for a long time. 
 
“While we are dealing with the energy intensive industries, the growth of GDP will become slow, but if one day when we totally solve this problem, the GDP would go back to, maybe, an 8%-growth rate in three to four years,” Jiang said.
 
However, so far energy intensive industries are still the most important factor holding both the economy and the environment back, according to Jiang. It has been problem for China, the second-largest economy and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, since 2004
 
Renewable energy lowers emissions, propels growth
 
Chinese President Xi has already sent the signal that for a more sustainable and balanced way of growth, China’s next national development blueprint includes promoting renewable energy usage and low-carbon emission industry. 
 
China’s clean and renewable energy usage is the highest in the world, which not only helps China to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection, but also helps to “decouple” the economic and CO2 growth, according to the Renewables 2015 Global Status Report, published by REN21, the world’s most frequently referenced report on the global renewable energy market, industry and policy landscape, in June. 
 
“Despite the world’s average annual 1.5% increase in energy consumption in recent years and average 3% growth in GDP, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2014 were unchanged from 2013 levels. For the first time in four decades, the world economy grew without a parallel rise in CO2 emissions,” it reads, “The landmark ‘decoupling’ of economic and CO2 growth is due in large measure to China's increased use of renewable resources, and efforts by countries in the OECD to promote more sustainable growth—including increased use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
 
Meanwhile, the report also said the increase of renewable energy use would help to increase employment rate, though more than 1 billion people still lack access to electricity. In 2014, an estimated 7.7 million people worldwide worked directly or indirectly in renewable energy sector, the report revealed. 
 
China has pledged to cut its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, raise the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to about 20 percent and peak its carbon emissions by the same year.
 
As a researcher providing consulting to the government, Jiang believed this goal was feasible for China to realize “in an academic sense,” adding that he was confident of having a “blue sky almost every day from 2020.”
 
“This requires us to do very well in the field of energy conservation technology. For example, if we want to continue to use coal, we have to figure out a very effective way to reduce its carbon emissions as possible as we can,” he said.
 
However, to further promote the usage of renewable energy domestically, high cost and lack of support facilities are hurdles.  

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