China’s involvement in climate change mitigation

4. Aug 2008

Inga Fritzen Buan Researcher, Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway ([email protected])

. . . .

Gørild M. Heggelund Senior Research Fellow, Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway ([email protected])

. . .


The last years there has been great focus in Western media on the many environmental and climate change-related challenges facing China and the country’s efforts, or lack thereof, to deal with them. What China does to mitigate climate change, the responsibilities it acknowledges and the possible future emissions reduction commitments it takes on are of crucial importance well beyond its own national borders. Reportedly becoming the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in 2007 by surpassing the US,[1] China is sometimes portrayed as an environmental and climate change ‘bad guy’ in the mainstream media. Here we focus on climate change, and attempt to show that the picture is more nuanced, as China is involved in several bi- and multi-lateral initiatives. Environmental problems are less politically sensitive than only ten years ago and, perhaps in an effort to be taken seriously on world political, diplomatic and business arenas, the Chinese are very much involved in international climate change mitigation. After first looking briefly at China’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, the following is an introduction to some of these efforts.

China‘s vulnerability to climate change

China is a country of particular vulnerability to climate change. Even though the government showed considerable crisis response capacity after this spring’s earth quakes, the necessary infrastructures are not everywhere in place to handle major disasters. With a huge coastal population in the areas which contribute most of the country’s wealth creation, even a smaller sea level rise will prove devastating. Further, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that China will experience impacts such as extreme weather, heat waves, flooding of rivers and mega-deltas, decrease in frost and earlier springs, loss of ice cover and glacial melting, drying up of wetlands, ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss.[2] Climate change will impact heavily on water supply and food production. Having acknowledged these threats, the Chinese leadership is now showing increasing will and eagerness to participate in international efforts.[3]

The UN track and the Clean Development Mechanism

China currently seeks to participate in mitigation through efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), rather than emissions reduction commitments.[4] CDM allows Annex I countries (i.e. developed countries with emissions reduction commitments) to invest in projects that reduce GHG emissions in Non-Annex I countries as an alternative to more expensive emission reductions at home, thus supposedly benefiting both parties. The first objective of CDM is to enable Annex I countries to claim ‘Certified Emissions Reductions’ (CERs) which can assist them in complying with their binding Kyoto commitments. The second objective is that Annex I countries assist developing countries in achieving sustainable development. CDM is meant to keep GHG emissions at a status quo, and is not an emissions reduction mechanism. The ‘additionality clause’ is therefore an important element meant to avoid issuing CERs to projects that would or could have been realized also in the absence of the mechanism, in the business-as-usual scenario, thus contributing to increased emissions. By for example demonstrating the existence of serious financial or technological barriers, host country project developers can argue that their projects would not have happened without the foreign funding it gets through the CDM, and that this makes them additional.

While the positive effects of the CDM are contested, especially in terms challenges of additionality,[5] even its critics agree that it has largely been a success in China. Energy security and climate change challenges together with the potential for technology transfer have contributed to a positive Chinese attitude towards CDM. It has developed a state apparatus for identifying, approving and implementing CDM projects. Priority areas for CDM in China reflect the country’s political priorities which are to ensure continued economic development for poverty alleviation.[6] These areas are therefore energy efficiency improvement, new and renewable energies, and methane recovery and utilisation. Projects also exist in the fields of HFC-23 chemical reduction, N2O decomposition, afforestation and reforestation, fuel substitution, castoff disposal, cement production, and landfills.

As of July 2008, there were 1388 Chinese CDM projects, with more being added every month.[7] China thus has more projects than any other host country, with India and Brazil and runners-up. While renewable energy projects make up more than 70% of the Chinese projects, the small number of large HFC-23 projects has the greatest GHG reduction potential. China is currently also the world leader in terms of CERs, with 32.83% of all CERs issued in the world, representing 38 486 131 tonnes of CO2 equivalent reduced per year. Out of the 61 projects with CERs, 89.76% of the emissions reductions come from only nine HFC-23 projects. The 42 renewable energy projects with CERs make up only 7.35% of the CERs. Currently, two to five new Chinese projects are getting CER issuances every month.

Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate

The less known Asia-Pacific Partnership (APP) is a public-private partnership which was set up by Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the US in 2005, representing
half of the world’s economy, population and energy use.[8] The APP’s main goal is to accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy technologies to its member countries. For China, this is preferable to taking on commitments it believes negative to its economic development.[9] Moreover, technology transfer through the Kyoto Protocol, though not an explicit goal of the CDM, has been slower than what the developing countries expected.

After three years, the APP’s project roster includes 118 projects belonging to eight task forces in aluminium, buildings and appliances, cement, cleaner use of fossil energy, coal mining, power generation and transmission, renewable energy, and steel. China is involved in all of them, but is co-chair of the Cleaner Fossil Energy Task Force and the Power Generation and Transmission Task Force, quite in line with its energy priorities and general national development priorities. Examples of the projects of the latter task force include e.g., exhibitions, conferences and missions on the relevant topics, as well as best practice plans, transmission and distribution activities, risk evaluation, modernization and life extension and remaining life assessment of power plants. In general, the project descriptions are much less detailed than those of the CDM. They lack data on expected emissions reductions, and after three years there exits little material on their progress and results. Even though both involve public-private partnership and reductions of increased GHG emissions, the APP appears to a complimentary rather than competitive track to the Kyoto Protocol.

Other mitigating efforts

According to Chinese sources, growth in Chinese GHG emissions has been slowed to almost half the economic growth rate over the past two decades through various measures.[10] Population control, over the past three decades responsible for a 300 million ‘reduction’ in births is one which has helped reduce pressure on social and economic development. Next, the 60% decline in energy intensity between 1977 and 1997 achieved through economic restructuring, energy price reform, and technological progress beyond the status quo is estimated to have resulted in 100 million tons of carbon mitigation a year. Changes in the energy mix involving less use of coal and more natural gas and renewables have also contributed. Last, forestry protection being China’s largest ecological investment program, the country’s sparse forest endowments have increased from 13% of the country in 1986 to 17% today, thus contributing to China’s carbon sinks.

There are also other international fora in which efforts are taking place, several of which China participates in. One example is the agreement between California and the municipality of Beijing to support local climate change mitigation efforts in China which is also a co-operation with UNDP.[11] Second, in 2008 China and Japan signed climate change ‘documents’ calling for the promotion of a mutually beneficial strategic relationship between the two countries and on cooperation on climate change. China pledged to work with other countries to study measures to realize the ultimate goals of the UNFCCC. It also expressed support of Japan’s target to halve global GHG emissions by 2050. Next, the so-called China Utility-Based Energy Efficiency Finance Program (CHUEE) supports marketing, development and equipment financing services to implement energy efficiency projects in China, with great importance for both climate change mitigation and national development goals. The program is expected to, among other things, have a significant developmental impact in promoting energy efficiency, and reducing pollution and GHG emissions. Funded by the Global Environmental Facility as well as Finish and Norwegian money, CHUEE operates under the International Finance Corporation’s Private Enterprise Partnership for China. Last, an MoU on environmental cooperation, including climate change issues, has recently been signed by the Norwegian and Chinese Ministers of Environmental Protection.


There is good reason to be concerned about the impact China’s economic growth and steadily rising GHG emissions will have on both the Chinese environment and the global climate. Here we have sought to show, however, that counter-measures are being made and that China is heavily involved not only in the most well-known efforts, but also in multiple smaller ones. China will no doubt continue its relentless drives for economic and energy security, its equally persistent emphasis on countries’ differentiated responsibilities, and calls for technology transfer. Its involvement in both bi- and multilateral climate change mitigation efforts should not be ignored, however.

Contact information

Inga Fritzen Buan, researcher

[email protected]

Fridtjof Nansen Institute

P.O. Box 326

1326 Lysaker, Norway

+47 67111900

[1] According to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Institute MER[2] IPCC. 4th Assessment Report. 2007. Available at

[3] Heggelund, G. China’s Climate Change Policy: Domestic and International Developments. Asian Perspective, vol 31, No 2, 2007, pp. 155-191.

[4] Heggelund, G. & I.F. Buan. China in the Asia-Pacific Partnership – Consequences for UN Climate Change Commitments? International Environmental Agreements. Forthcoming, autumn 2008.

[5] See for example: Wara, M & D.G. Victor. “A Realistic Policy on International Carbon Offsets”. Stanford University, Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Working Paper, No. 74 (April 2008).

[6] Heggelund, G. & I.F. Buan. Ibid.

[7] For Chinese project information, see


[9] Heggelund, G. & I.F. Buan. Ibid.

[10] Chandler, W., R. Schaeffer, D. Zhou, P.R. Shukla, F. Tudela, O. Davidson & S. Alpan-Atamer. “Climate change mitigation in developing countries. Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey.” PEW Center on Global Climate Change, available at