New Issue Brief Explores China’s Motivation to Act on Clean Energy and Climate Change

In April, the United States and China announced a new joint partnership that recognized the danger of climate change and “inadequacy of the global response.” Next month, China is expected to launch its first pilot regional cap and trade system. China similarly is taking additional actions to reduce its carbon intensity by 40 to 45% compared to 2005 levels by 2020, and has become the world’s number one investor in clean energy. Together, these steps show that China understands the challenges it faces and is serious about making progress.

However, one important question remains mostly unexamined: what are the motivations behind China taking action?

By looking at the ‘why’ along with the ‘how,’ a new ChinaFAQs issue brief provides important insights into how seriously China will take implementation of existing goals, why China is likely to persevere, and what the United States, China, and other countries can learn from each other about the need for and value of stronger action on clean energy and climate. (“Why is China Taking Action on Clean Energy and Climate Change?”)

The issue brief explains the reasons why China is taking action on clean energy and climate change and the benefits it seeks. The brief shows how other countries, including the U.S., can benefit from taking action. The brief demonstrates that both countries have strong reasons for engaging and working together to confront climate change.

This issue brief identifies five key drivers that motivate China’s actions. An examination of China’s motivations shows that on all five of these fronts, China has a powerful self-interest in action:

  1. A higher priority for environment in development policy: along with a need to encourage more domestic consumption and innovation to sustain growth, people in China are increasingly demanding better environmental quality. These factors have led the Chinese government to begin to move away from unrestricted economic development towards a notion of “building a resource-saving and environment-friendly society,” as was mentioned in China’s Twelfth Five Year Plan.

  2. Economic competitiveness: China sees an immense economic opportunity in clean energy. Some analysts have forecasted that the global market for low carbon technology will reach $1.5 to $2.7 trillion annually in 2020. A separate UNEP report projected that by 2030, there would by 8.4 million jobs in solar PV and wind energy, and 12 million in biofuels, globally. With the potential for millions of jobs and over $620 billion in investment in China between 2010 and 2020, gaining a large share of these benefits is an important part of China’s plans for future development.

  3. Energy security: Although China is beginning to ramp up its clean energy deployment, China today relies on fossil fuels for almost 90% of its energy, and is increasingly dependent on foreign imports. Domestic deployment of renewables and efficiency improvements can help alleviate these problems by greatly improving the reliability of China’s domestic energy supply.

  4. Threats from climate change: China’s leaders are increasingly concerned about declines in livelihoods and the increased unrest that could arise from the impacts of climate change. For example China’s first national report on climate change projected that yields of rice, corn and wheat could fall by as much as 37% within a few decades due to climate change. Studies have also shown that a third of China’s coastline is “high vulnerable” or “very highly vulnerable” to sea level rise, with 90% of the coastline “moderately vulnerable” or worse. With coastal zones hosting 42% of China’s population and 51% of its GDP, sea level rise has the potential to be a very serious problem for the country.

  5. An opportunity to assert leadership in the international community: China views climate change as an issue where it can show positive international leadership, as well as leadership among developing nations. In 2009, in a first for the country, a Chinese President addressed the United Nations and stated “out of a sense of responsibility to its own people and people across the world, China has taken and will continue to take determined and practical steps to tackle this challenge.”

Many of these motivations also drive other countries in pursuit of clean energy and climate friendly policies. Other countries such as Australia, Germany and India, are also increasing their efforts in pursuing clean energy for self-interested reasons. These international examples illustrate that countries, across a variety of circumstances, have strong incentives to act on clean energy and climate change.

The U.S., although not currently on track to meet its international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, does have options available to ensure that such reductions become a reality. Looking at the reasons why other countries are acting can help reinforce our own reasons for action, as well as show us why we will not be acting alone. Like China, the U.S. needs to be concerned with climate impacts, as was demonstrated by America’s vulnerability to Hurricane Sandy. The U.S is concerned with energy security, and with economic opportunities.

Some people in the U.S. still claim that China is not taking significant action on clean energy and climate change—and some use this as an excuse for the U.S. government to drag its heels as well. This misconception is fed in part by looking exclusively at the environmental problems China is facing, while ignoring the positive developments in China and its reasons for action. The truth is that while China does face significant environmental challenges, it is taking important steps to address climate change. As the issue brief shows, the misconception that China is not acting should no longer be seen as a reason for inaction on the part of the U.S., or any other country.

It is also in the interest of China and the United States to work together to address this critical issue. While China and the United States face tensions across many areas, addressing climate change and shifting to clean energy represents an area for mutual benefit, with the two countries having complementary strengths. Improved diplomacy can help strengthen relations between the countries, as well as make progress on one of the world’s greatest challenges. This, indeed, would benefit both countries and the planet.

Read the full Issue Brief: “Why is China Taking Action on Clean Energy and Climate Change?


ChinaFAQs is a project of the World Resources Institute