Keeping a Close Watch on China’s Climate Transition

JingJing Qian, senior strategic advisor for NRDC’s China program, is bearing witness to some truly remarkable changes taking place in her home country. She’s also helping to make those changes happen.
Wuhan New Energy Centre in China, one of the most sustainable buildings in the world

Zhou Chao/AP Images

The China that JingJing Qian knew as a child and the China she currently calls home aren’t one and the same.

Qian, senior strategic advisor for NRDC’s China program, grew up in Beijing and was a young woman when China took its first steps toward modernization and economic reform in the 1980s. Since then, the country of her birth has been transformed from an agro-economic society into an industrial powerhouse. And with her outsider’s perspective—Qian spent many years abroad studying and working in London, California, and New York—she can attest to the fact that most of the country’s cities and many of its rural villages have modernized in terms of housing, roads, transportation, and basic services. She is glad to note that China has become a middle-income country, with per-capita income an astounding 70 times what it was back in the late 1970s.

But such rapid, explosive growth brings myriad challenges. Severe air and water pollution as well as toxic soil contamination are now a part of everyday life for tens of millions of Chinese citizens. In addition, the world’s most populous country is now the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for almost 30 percent of humanity’s global carbon footprint.

These were some of the issues that led to the formation of NRDC’s China program in the mid-1990s and that continue to inform its mission. When Qian joined the program in 2002, following an eight-year stint at the United Nations, including time at UNICEF, she brought its tiny staff to a total of four; today more than 30 people work in NRDC’s China office. The program’s overall scope has grown alongside its personnel. “NRDC started with one energy efficiency project that introduced green-building and demand-side management concepts to China,” Qian recalls. These days, she and her colleagues seek to address many of China’s unique environmental challenges as the country adjusts to becoming a global player.

At the top of the priorities list: finding a way to ramp up renewable energy while simultaneously reducing China’s (still significant) dependence on coal. So far, progress has been incremental. Coal’s power share was reduced from 64 percent to 62 percent between 2015 and 2016 and is expected to drop to 60 percent by the end of 2017, which “is still too large,” Qian emphasizes. But the fact that coal consumption has finally begun to level off, after more than two decades of steep increase, is a promising trend.

What’s more, slowing coal production will go a long way toward helping China meet its goals under the Paris climate agreement by the target date of 2030. As part of that accord, China pledged to increase the share of non–fossil fuels in its energy mix to around 20 percent and to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 percent to 65 percent of 2005 levels. Getting there, however, will require concerted efforts across all energy-use sectors, from industry to transportation to urban development—and on a massive scale. For example, the country will need to develop additional clean energy resources at levels approaching the total current electricity capacity of the United States (between 800 and around 1,000 gigawatts) in order to reach that first goal.

Jingjing Qian moderated a forum during the second U.S.–China Climate Leaders Summit in Beijing in June 2016.

“The good news is that China is emerging as a global leader in renewable energy production,” Qian says, and is well on its way to making good on its commitments. Even so, she regrets that the United States—beside whom China proudly stood as a climate coleader during the drafting of the agreement—has decided to renege on its pledge. China has made clear that it is committed to fulfilling the Paris Agreement but won’t fill the gap left by the United States after its withdrawal.

Barbara Finamore, the NRDC senior attorney who founded the China program, has known and worked alongside Qian for more than 20 years. She credits much of the program’s success to her colleague’s dedication, perseverance, and administrative expertise. “JingJing earns people’s respect—people in the Beijing office call her laoshi, which means ‘teacher,’” Finamore says. “And she’s been passionate about sustainable cities for as long as I’ve known her, which is so important, given the rate of urbanization in China. She also has unbelievable persistence in building up constructive working relationships with local partners.”

Persistence and partnership are prerequisites for tackling one of China’s most pressing public health issues: pollution. Airborne particulate matter leads to respiratory illness; nitrous oxide creates thick blankets of smog that can shroud entire cities; untreated liquid effluents from factories and runoff from farms compromise water supplies and destroy natural habitats.

China, to its credit, isn’t hiding its problems. “In recent years, the government has been making large strides in disclosing environmental information and encouraging public participation,” Qian says. Since 2014, some 15,000 of the largest industrial facilities have been required to disclose data about their primary pollutant discharges online on an hourly basis. China’s basic environmental protection law was also amended in 2014 to include heavier fines for violations and to allow qualified nongovernmental organizations to sue polluters. “The challenge now is to ensure implementation and increase the rate of compliance,” Qian adds.

As China continues to develop at a furious pace, Qian and her colleagues are working to find opportunities to collaborate with international partners in order to find solutions that are applicable to—and replicable in—her home country. In June of this year, the China team arranged a delegation of officials from Shanghai to visit New York City, where they toured the Bank of America Tower, the first LEED platinum–certified high-rise office building, as well as the Empire State Building, a well-known example of a sustainably retrofit skyscraper. Such collaborations are necessary, she says, to maintain the “important bridge between the two largest energy users and greenhouse gas emitters in the world.”

From left: Qian with NRDC president Rhea Suh and NRDC China program founder Barbara Finamore in Jiaxing, China, 2016

China is a country in transition—economically, developmentally, environmentally―and because of its size and importance in global affairs, the changes taking place there affect the entire world. Qian is excited about many of them. “China already leads the world in wind and solar power capacity,” she says, “and has tremendous potential to help other developing countries transition more quickly to pollution-free renewable energy.” She also cites the government’s timeline-in-progress for banning the domestic production and sale of gasoline-powered cars. “Ours is the world’s largest vehicle market, and it’s only going to continue to expand. Banning gasoline-powered cars will not only help China accelerate the peaking and reduction of its oil consumption but also help us become a global leader in electric-vehicle technology and production.” At the same time, Qian adds, it is fundamentally important that Chinese cities pursue smart growth—with compact layouts more friendly to pedestrians, mixed land use, and expansion of public transit—to reduce reliance on cars.

China’s clean energy transition is well under way and paving the path for a major image shift for polluted megacities like Beijing and Shanghai. The country appears ready to take the lead on climate. And when it does, JingJing Qian and her colleagues in NRDC’s China program will be able to say they played a part in ushering in a new era.

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