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Time to rethink the development model

By CHAI QIMIN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-04-21 10:59

The transition to green socio-economic development in China is in progress.

The peaking of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions has been a topic of heated debate as the next policy issue for China, as it undertakes an economic transition and a new system of environmental governance.

It is obviously a tough task for China to achieve such peaking soon. Big challenges arise from the trade-offs among such factors as the economy, energy and climate security.

China has set new targets under which its CO2 emissions will peak around 2030, or earlier if possible, and the non-fossil fuel share of all energy will increase to around 20 percent by 2030.

The coming decades are a crucial stage in China's development, and how to achieve a smooth transition to a low-carbon model, while avoiding an excessive adverse impact on social and economic development has become a key issue.

The nation is worried about radical mitigation measures that could push the economy into a recession and lead to social unrest.

Under its long-term development strategy, China aims to become a fully industrialized, middle-class society by 2021. Further in the future, it wants to become a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious modern country (with the economic level of a moderately developed country) by 2049.

That means the goals of development in China will be more diverse.

China is now at an economic inflection point. Unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development remains a big problem, while future economic development planning requires new directions and drivers after the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the past 30 years.

China is actually, perhaps inevitably, repeating the mistakes of industrialized countries, typically in environmental pollution (air, water and soil).

Several large-scale contamination incidents in recent years spurred the country to take a serious look at the quality of development and environmental protection issues.

The Chinese people believe that the country in the mid-21st century will stress not only the hard, cold GDP numbers but also the green, low-carbon and environmental aspects of life.

As the economy keeps growing, these factors will gradually assume top positions in the social value system and institutional innovation.

The longstanding energy strategy in China, which has been dominated by coal, has caused a raft of problems including environmental degradation. The energy, transportation and chemical sectors were all built on coal resources, resulting in low efficiency and heavy pollution.

The economy has become trapped in this pattern and technological progress is being held back. Environmental costs have not been reflected in the market.

But there is a chance to end this deadlock with breakthroughs involving genuine decarbonization, which will also support energy security.

A nation's strength and potential often comes from technological and institutional innovation. So a low-carbon development pattern will inspire production, consumption and lifestyle changes and bring opportunities for industrial, commercial and community transformation. Such development and reform will also get China more involved in global climate change governance, where it will assume appropriate responsibilities.

Environmental progress and green development require the government to stimulate and regulate by appropriate planning. The market has failed in this regard.

The nation's infrastructure is based on a high-carbon model. So are technological pathways and consumption behavior. The economy faces enormous difficulties and costs without adjustments.

If the government does not take timely steps to address the increasingly serious environmental pollution in China, immeasurable losses of human capital and health will occur. And the world cannot continue to allow such growth in emissions.

For these reasons, decision-makers must reflect on the previous decades of development.

When it comes to energy consumption and emission caps, "forcing mechanisms" are a policy option. What remains controversial is the turning point-that is, when can China reach a peak?

There are different emission pathways for China. One would be to grow quickly to an early but high peak, followed by a deep cut. Another would be slower growth with progressive controls, which would result in a later but lower peak, followed by a moderate decline. But because of the constraints of the current economic and energy structures, the "fast" mode may lead to far more economic shocks.

A progressive and incremental mitigation plan seems more appropriate for developing countries, where it will make the transitions smoother.

The author is deputy director of the strategy and planning department of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation.

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