China unveils climate change plan
Country vows to 'blaze new path to industrialisation' and invest in green energy, without committing to emissions targets.
Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Monday June 4, 2007
A pond filled with dead fish on the outskirts of Wuhan, in Hubei province. About 125,000kg of fish have reportedly died in China in the last three days due to water pollution. Photograph: Reuters
But in a blow to efforts to tackle global warming, the world's second biggest producer of greenhouse gases refused to accept binding targets for emissions, saying wealthy developed nations must take the bulk of the responsibility for the problem.
The announcement of the 62-page action plan appeared aimed at deflecting criticism ahead of the G8 plus six summit in Germany this week and a series of key international meetings on the environment.
The government also pledged more research into energy-saving technology, improvements in water resource management, and public education campaigns to raise awareness of the issue.
On the contentious issue of greenhouse gas emissions, the plan promised "significant achievements" but made no commitment to a quantifiable goal.
"We must reconcile the need for development with the need for environmental protection," Ma Kai, the head of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters.
"In its course of modernisation, China will not tread the traditional path of industrialisation, featuring high consumption and high emissions. In fact, we want to blaze a new path to industrialisation."
If this goal is realised it would represent a remarkable turnaround. China's double-digit growth spurt has come at a huge environmental cost. Most of the country's rivers are dangerously polluted, the air quality in dozens of cities is hazardous to human health and industry is so inefficient that China uses seven times as much energy as Japan for each dollar of GDP.
The country's rapid growth and reliance on coal for 70% of its energy needs have it on track to overtake the US as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, possibly as early as this year. The report admitted that reliance on coal will "not change substantially for a long-term period in the future" despite efforts to enhance renewable energy, build nuclear plants and speed up utilisation of coal bed methane.
The carbon footprint of the average Chinese citizen is less than a fifth of that of an American, and just over a third of a European's.
Nevertheless, China has come under increasing pressure to act, particularly given the huge economic advances it has made since 1997, when Beijing argued during Kyoto treaty talks that developing countries should be exempt from mandatory cuts because they needed room to grow and were less to blame for global warming.
Mr Ma repeated this line today, saying wealthy nations must take more responsibility because they had been pumping industrial gases into the atmosphere for 200 years.
He rejected an EU proposal - expected to be debated at a special session of the G8 summit - for the extent of global warming to be limited to a rise of 2C by 2050. "I fear this lacks a scientific basis," Mr Ma said.
But he gave qualified support to George Bush's proposals last week for a pact among the planet's biggest emitters, saying it was a "positive change". It should not, however, displace the main UN treaty on global warming, the Kyoto protocol, he said.
Most of China's climate change plan restates existing goals, including a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2010 and more than doubling the use of renewable energy by 2020.
Both the UN and Greenpeace welcomed it as a step forward.
Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, said: "We cannot ask for more at this stage."
He said China and other developing nations should focus on building greener energy sources such as methane power plants. "The infrastructure now being built will serve for the next 30 to 50 years," he said.
Yang Ailun, Greenpeace China's climate change campaigner, said: "This is a first. It shows China has done its homework about what needs to be done. Even though the plan is mostly a compilation of existing policies, that shouldn't detract from its significance or the current level of effort."
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