With Tuesday’s news that the U.S. officially submitted commitments to the United Nations, pledging to significantly cut its carbon emissions to help flight climate change, it’s natural to wonder what China is up to. After all, China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and has seen its environmental legacy marred by stifling air pollution and a deep dependence on coal power.
Some of the news out of China isn’t so great. It missed the March 31 deadline for submitting plans to the U.N., and still gets 70 percent of its energy from coal, a fuel source whose emissions have been blamed for the premature deaths of more than a quarter million residents in 2011.
But there’s good news, too. In November, China made headlines when it signed a climate agreement with the United States, pledging to begin reducing its carbon emissions in 2030, the same year it promised to get one-fifth of its power from renewable sources. And now, it’s taking immediate steps to curb air pollution by shutting down coal plants and paring down on congestion in its capital city.
Here are a few positive steps the country has recently taken on the road to a more sustainable future.
It’s Actually Cutting Coal — Like, Really
Last week, Beijing announced that it would shutter the last of its four major coal-fired power plants in 2016, replacing the stations with gas-fired plants capable of producing 2.6 times more electricity.
This is good for Beijing’s air quality, which is even worse than the rest of the country. With pollution twice that of China’s national standard, the city has been forced to take an especially aggressive stance in curbing emissions from coal. Closing the coal plants will reduce the city’s coal use by 9.2 million metric tons, a move that will help the city reach their goal of cutting annual consumption by 13 million tons before 2017.
The move reflects a marked — though still modest — turn away from coal power in China. In 2014, China cut its coal consumption by 2.9 percent, the first time in the 21st century that its coal consumption actually decreased. As part of the U.S.-China deal in November, China pledged to cap its coal consumption by 2020, but senior policy advisers in the country reportedly support a national cap on coal starting as soon as 2016.
While China’s coal consumption has been the fuel of its growing economy, transitioning to renewable energy could provide the country with a strong base of green jobs. A new study, released by the the China Coal Cap Project — a group of researchers from both public and private sectors — found that by 2020, a push for renewable energy would create 1.14 million jobs and support investments in clean energy that would benefit China’s service sectors, like finance, consulting, education, and even media.
It’s an investment that China is already making. According to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations Environment Progream (UNEP), China spent $83.3 billion on renewable energy in 2014, a 39 percent increase from 2013.
It’s Literally Banning Cars From The Road
Beijing’s poor air quality is not just an environmental problem. It’s a public health issue too, with rates of lung cancer among its 21 million inhabitants on the rise.
In an effort to improve air quality in the immediate future, officials in Beijing recently announced a new ban on vehicles during times of especially bad pollution. As reported by Reuters, the city will limit motorists to driving every other day in times of a “red alert,” issued when the city expects especially heavy pollution to persist for at least three days.
Heavy vehicles — like those used for construction — will be banned from the roads under both red alerts and orange alerts, the next level down in the city’s four-tiered measure of air quality.
This isn’t the first time that Beijing has sought to stifle air pollution by curbing vehicle use, though those bans have mainly come during times when Beijing has played host to important events, like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in 2014 or the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
According to Reuters, the city’s environmental protection agency admits that telling residents they can only drive on alternating days isn’t a viable long-term solution to Beijing’s pollution problem, saying that “in recent years, the city has continued to increase its air pollution prevention and control efforts by curbing coal and controlling the fuel emissions from cars.”
It’s Planting A Ridiculous Number Of Trees
In addition to greener energy policies, China is also working to make the world a greener place — literally.
Despite rampant deforestation in tropical places like Brazil and Indonesia and the continued fragmentation of forests elsewhere, the world’s vegetation has actually expanded in the past decade, thanks in large part to China.
Along with environmental factors — like increased rainfall stimulating the growth of more vegetation on the savannas of Africa, Australia, and South America — China’s massive tree planting projects helped the the world add nearly 4 billion tons of carbon to above-ground plants, according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change. As Reuters points out, however, this amount pales in comparison to the 60 billion tons of carbon released over the same period of time from burning fossil fuels and producing cement.
But China isn’t just planting trees to sequester carbon — it’s hoping to stem the flow of desertification that is threatening its soil, agriculture, and cities. Due to years of development, only 2 percent of China’s original forests remain, leaving nearly a quarter of the country is covered in sand, according to the Economist.
In 1978, China kicked off the largest tree planting project in the world, known as the Three North Shelterbelt Project. Since it started, the Chinese citizens have planted over 66 billion trees — and before it ends, in 2050, the project aims to increase the world’s forests by more than a tenth. Critics of the project worry that planting trees in sandy areas won’t be a long-term fix, and that the trees will die before any kind of meaningful reforestation can occur. But a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences concluded that it was able to shelter China from dust storms while successfully reintroducing vegetation to the country’s edges.