China is taking steps to tackle its huge carbon output. Today, the country announced the details of its first carbon trading program, which will begin in the city of Shenzhen next month. The southern city is one of seven cities and provinces, including Beijing, which will take part in the pilot program, set to be completely implemented by 2014.
And according to one local news source, China could implement an absolute, nation-wide cap on its carbon emissions by 2016. China’s 21st Century Business Herald reported this week that the country’s State Council still needs to approve the carbon cap proposal submitted by the National Development and Reform Commission, a government entity that controls much of the Chinese economy. The proposal, which the State Council is reportedly likely to support, would ensure China’s emissions would not increase past the country’s target cap, regardless of economic growth — though it’s still unclear what that cap would be. The paper reported that the NDRC also predicts China’s greenhouse gas emissions will peak in 2025, rather than 2030, as earlier predictions stated.
If the cap is adopted, it would be a major step for the world’s top CO2 emitter, which desperately needs to slow its carbon production. China is experiencing the world’s fastest growth in energy production and CO2 emissions, while production and emissions in the U.S. and Europe are flat-lining or decreasing. China uses 47 percent of the world’s coal, a number that’s only going up: in 2011, China’s coal consumption grew by 9 percent, accounting for 87 percent of the world’s 374 million ton increase in coal consumption that year.
The country’s emissions aren’t just a major contributor to climate change worldwide — they’re causing serious local problems as well. In Beijing, pollution has reached record levels, topping 775 in January — a number that breaks the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality scale of 0 to 500. The air pollution levels are so high that Beijing schools are building air-purified domes over playgrounds so that children can play outside, and many expatriates are withdrawing their applications from Beijing jobs or choosing to leave the country altogether.
The possibility of a carbon cap in China has been hailed as “potentially transformative” in the fight against climate change, as other major emitters such as the U.S. have historically cited China’s inaction on climate change as reason to avoid implementing meaningful greenhouse gas regulations. Previously, China has shied away from cuts in emissions, saying its main priority was the growth of its economy. In November 2012, the state-owned Xinhua quoted Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief negotiator to the UN climate change talks, as saying it was “unfair and unreasonable to hold China to absolute cuts in emissions at the present stage, when its per capita GDP stands at just 5,000 U.S. dollars.”
But now, China’s advancements in carbon regulation mean the U.S.’s strategy of waiting for China to act on climate change before it does is becoming less and less credible. China has already pledged to cut its carbon intensity, or emissions per unit of GDP, by 17 percent between 2011 and 2015 and 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. In February, the country announced it would be implementing a carbon tax, but it later clarified that it would wait until 2013 is over to introduce the program. And the country has invested substantially in renewable energy, spending $65 billion on clean energy projects in 2012, nearly twice as much as the U.S.’s $35.6 billion.