China's New Role in Climate Action Raises Hope for Change

Strong, sustainable growth is high on the agenda for the G20, which met earlier this month in Hangzhou, China. The gathering of 20 of the world's most important economies offered a unique opportunity for these countries to send a powerful message of unity in climate action to the world, building upon last year's Paris Climate Agreement. Indeed, with China and the United States having formally committed to the Paris Agreement, the moment marked an important turning point in the global climate conversation and - importantly - reinforced China's new role in that dialogue.

Considered by the global community as a key member to climate action, China has made significant strides in recent years to drive the clean energy revolution and climate change fight across the world. China's commitment to reduce GHG emission is integral to the passage of the Paris Agreement. As a country with the world's largest population, China worked closely with the United States to secure a crucial bilateral climate deal that set the foundation for success at COP21.

Increasingly, the world has realized that climate action and economic growth go hand in hand and China is exemplary in its prioritization of climate action as part of its development plan. Meanwhile, short-term air quality improvement and longer-term, systemic climate change mitigation demand greater - and more urgent - action.

As a Commissioner of the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), a diverse group of key players in the global energy sector that comprises perspectives from industry, finance, NGOs and former elected officials, we recognize that the world will not achieve a truly sustainable energy transition overnight. The ETC's recent analysis of 17 countries' national commitments under the Paris Agreement, including China, the United States, and EU, provides important analysis of which mechanisms are included in these commitments, where they fall short, and how countries might hasten their achievement.

China's INDC: The Largest CO2 Reduction Commitment

China's commitment under the Paris Agreement stipulates a peaking of emissions before 2030, and Non-fossil energy reach 20% of primary energy consumption. Compared to other developing countries' intensity targets, China's GHG peak target is more constructive, showing how a giant industrial economy can practice its global responsibility even at huge economic costs and obstacles.

According to the INDCs of 17 countries, China makes the largest emission reduction commitment of up to 3.16 Gt CO2 (under same GDP assumptions, INDC target compared to the baseline, which is the average of multiple scenarios in the word). Achieving this ambitious target depends on China's efforts in economic transition, energy efficiency improvement and near-zero carbon energy development. Having made an impressive progress in expanding near-zero carbon energy portfolio, China already has the world's largest installed wind power and photovoltaic capacity, which is a very significant achievement, especially considering its relative low income and limited land resources per capita.


China's INDC: The Role of Fossil Fuels

Of course, there are other levers at play: energy productivity is expected to increase at 4 percent per annum (as compared to only 2.5 percent in the Untied States and European Union).

Additionally, the power sector in China today accounts for nearly half the country's coal consumption. The INDC addresses this head-on: about one-tenth of emissions reductions will be anticipated to come from a shift in fossil fuel resources, due to the coal reduction and a push to using gas in power. In a demonstration of the interrelatedness of the global energy system, China's new policies of supply side reform to reduce the over-capacity of coal production by 0.8-1 billion tones, have fueled a reversal in coal prices worldwide, which will help reduce the economic competitiveness of coal, compared to the clean energies in the global market.

A Clear Path Forward

Even under China's INDC, the country's energy related emissions might increase before 2030, driving by the urbanization in next 15 years. To realize the peak as soon as possible, the country will specify additional energy efficiency measures, and decarbonize other non-power sectors.

There are two important pathways China must pursue in order to secure a clean development agenda. First, rapid urbanization across the country offers the opportunity for better city planning that prioritizes industrial and building energy efficiency, vehicle electrification and innovative financing mechanisms that leverage private sector and state funding to finance sustainable infrastructure projects. Beijing, for instance, aims to install 435,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2020, in an effort to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road by 600,000.

Second, as part of its goal to diversify away from a heavy manufacturing base, China will focus on promoting energy efficiency and designing its energy systems so renewables can be readily integrated into its electricity sector - the largest in the world. Critically, the Chinese government can address new energy demand by scaling up its energy efficiency programs.

On the supply side, though China has the most grid connected wind capacity of any country in the world, the curtailment problem is more and more important. To rectify this, the country must better coordinate between generation and transmission planning, and should reform its utility pricing system , to help integrate efficiency measures and renewable energy into the overall system. In the meantime, it is also important for China to put more efforts in the critical innovative techniques, such as smart energy and micro-grids.

A Bright Future

As the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, the second largest economy and the largest population of nearly 1.4 billion people, China stands poised to shape the future of our global energy system, which in turn holds enormous implications for the global economy. China's recent reforms and commitments send a powerful signal to the world that it is serious about global leadership on these issues. By continuing to prioritize smart urban development with an increased emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable deployment, China can cooperate with the other countries, lock the world into a safe, prosperous and sustainable future for all.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or, officially, "Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development"). The SDGs represent an historic agreement -- a wide-ranging roadmap to sustainability covering 17 goals and 169 targets -- but stakeholders must also be held accountable for their commitments. To see all the posts in the series, visit here.