Sunset in Tianjin, China. (Photo: World Resources Institute)
China has released its new blueprint for the future of the country. As Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute tells host Bruce Gellerman the five year plan is more environmentally ambitious than anything China has proposed in the past.
GELLERMAN: China's latest blueprint for the future has a distinctively green tinge.
The People's Republic, already the world's second largest economy, is also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China's new five-year plan deals with both the environment and the economy.
It projects the gross domestic product will rise 40 percent by 2015, while the use of energy needed to produce all that economic growth will increase by just 16 percent. Deborah Seligsohn calls that an ambitious goal. Seligsohn is a principle advisor for the World Resources Institute's China Climate and Energy Program.
SELIGSOHN: It's the first time they've had a major climate section in their five-year plan. The focus on environment is also much, much larger than it's ever been before. They also announced separately from the plan that they plan to put a total cap on energy use in the country.
GELLERMAN: An energy cap?
SELIGSOHN: Yes, it would limit total amount of energy use. They're going to make more stuff with less energy per unit growth. So they're going to reduce the rate of increase, and it will require them to really increase the amount of energy efficiency they do and also the amount of non-fossil fuel - hydro, wind, solar, nuclear.
GELLERMAN: Coal accounts for, what, 80 percent of China's emissions or more. How are they going to continue making more stuff and use coal and still reduce their carbon footprint?
SELIGSOHN: Well, I think the percentage of coal in the mix is going to go down. They also are doing a lot to just improve the efficiency of coal, and they're trying to put”¦use some natural gas instead of coal as well. All of those reduce the amount of CO2 per unit of output.
GELLERMAN: Well, they do have a lot of people. They have 1 and a third billion people and they all want cars - they have huge traffic jams that go on for days - how are they going to deal with that?
SELIGSOHN: They may all want cars, but they're not all going to buy cars. I mean it's important to keep the vehicle numbers in perspective. In the United States, everybody in the whole country basically relies on cars. In China, it's a few big cities that operate like the US - the rest of the country is still much, much poorer. But part of this plan is an incredibly ambitious transportation plan.
They're talking about increasing their high-speed rail network so the inter-city transportation”¦several-fold, actually. And they're also talking about a massive increase in urban subway lines. So, they're trying to give people good alternatives to using their own car. And actually, the global evidence is that what controls vehicle use is simply not building the roads - building the other forms of transportation. Whether the people buy the cars or not is not as important as whether they have a place to use them.
GELLERMAN: Well, in terms of infrastructure, this past year China just surpassed the United States as the nation with the most installed wind power, but as I understand it, 30 percent of that wind power isn't plugged into the grid!
SELIGSOHN: It gets plugged into the grid - they just run about a four-month lag.
SELIGSOHN: And their wind power goals for the next five years are much more ambitious. They're talking about 70 giga-watts in the next five years, which is more than double what they currently have. And so not only do they have the most wind power installed in the world, they're growing at the fastest rate, and they're just leaving everybody else way behind.
GELLERMAN: I heard they also want to go green with trees - they have a huge re-forestry program.
SELIGSOHN: They've had a huge re-forestry program for the entire 60-year history of the People's Republic of China. They started in 1949 with 8.6 percent tree cover, and today it's around 20 percent. And the goal in the next plan is to get up to 21-point-something. They're also setting a forest stock volume goal to make sure that these forests are dense and healthy.
GELLERMAN: You know, Deborah, China is of course a planned economy - it's top-down, and the government can dictate what it wants to do, but are the people embracing an environmental ethic? Is environmentalism becoming part of the culture?
SELIGSOHN: China is a very complicated place. I would not call it purely top-down - I think everyone who comes here feels the bottom-up ferment, especially in terms of economic activity. But, in terms of the environmental thing, what's been so interesting is that the environmental ministry has actually used public opinion very, very effectively to support its role.
Realizing the public really cares about the environment - that people worry about, ”˜what's my air like,' ”˜what's my water like' - they've used that quite assiduously. They are much more open with the public, they meet with the press, the minister of environment put a long, long very frank letter on his webpage about what China's critical environmental issues are and what needs to be done. So, this time around, they're going much more ambitious.
GELLERMAN: Well, Deborah Seligsohn, thank you very much, really appreciate it.
SELIGSOHN: You're welcome!
GELLERMAN: Deborah Seligsohn is a Principal Advisor to the World Resources Institute's China Climate and Energy Program - we spoke to her in Beijing.
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