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After Paris – 6 – New Scientific Research Thinking on Combating Climate Change

Li Liyan / Researcher, Bureau of Climate Change Response, National Development and Reform Commission / 2016-01-25

Climate change adaptation, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and adverse effects mitigation are, essentially, endeavours made for future development and they touch upon all aspects of the society, economy and development. The science is complex. Whereas developed countries have a clear edge in their R&D capabilities, the prescriptions they give are often ill-suited for China’s realities. It remains a challenge to come up with climate solutions that meet China’s specific needs.


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The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Paris, concluded with nearly 200 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopting the Paris Agreement,  a balanced, integrated and comprehensive agreement representing concerns of all countries on climate change. The agreement sets out visions in a number of areas such as mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity-building, and transparency of action and support. It also requests the international community to take enhanced action prior to 2020, in the above-mentioned areas. The agreement aims to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to, in the second half of this century, realise net zero emission of greenhouse gases (by achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases).

The international climate change negotiations can boil down to countries and interest groups vying for rights to development and international competitiveness, and have rich implications for politics, diplomacy, society, economy, environmental protection, and science and technology. The Paris Agreement recognises the importance of nationally determined contributions and requests parties to communicate or update their contributions every five years. In 2015, China announced its enhanced actions and measures in its first nationally determined contributions document, in which China promised to achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level. These goals will put pressure on China to seek new energy outlook and development outlook as well as new thinking, new model and new approach for its scientific research efforts to combat climate change.

Efforts and Achievements Review

Global Efforts and Achievements

Scientific research on climate change is cross-industry and interdisciplinary in nature. Internationally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, regularly publishes assessment reports reviewing the latest development in climate science and a number of special reports on particular topics. The IPCC published its first assessment report in 1990, and by now has published five assessment reports. The decision to prepare a Fifth Assessment Report was taken in 2008. More than 800 scientists recommended by governments were involved in writing the report. They reviewed and assessed over 30,000 recent scientific publications on the progress in climate science, went through the process of peer review and government review and, from 2013 to 2014, released Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Part As Global and Sectoral Aspects, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, and Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report.

Compared with those from the previous four assessment reports, the findings of the Fifth Assessment Report are not new. Synthesis Report systematically recognises several major issues in the current climate change response, including the correlation between rising global surface temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions accumulation; the relationship between the impacts and risks brought about by rising temperatures and climate change; between climate change risk management and adaptation, and mitigation; between combating climate change and sustainable development; and between international cooperation and domestic policies; as well as measures needed across governmental departments in response to climate change.

China’s Efforts and Achievements

In 2004 China launched its National Climate Change Programme or CNCCP. As of now three CNCCP documents have been released by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the first in 2007 and the latest at the end of November, 2015 ahead of the Paris Conference.

The major findings of China’s third CNCCP document are as below.

In the past 100 years, surface temperatures in China increased by an average of 0.9 to 1.5 degrees Celsius. There was no obvious trend of change in annual precipitation in China. The rate of annual sea level rise along China’s coasts from 1980 to 2012 was 2.5mm, higher than the global average. Since the 1970s, glaciers in China have retreated, and the amount of permafrost is reducing.

The analysis of climate change in China has focused primarily on its impacts on agriculture, water resources, marine environment, ecosystem and cities. The conclusion is that climate change has brought both advantages and disadvantages to China, with the disadvantages generally overshadowing the advantages. In the future, China will see more extreme climate/weather events and higher-than-global-average levels of natural disaster risks; the adverse effects of climate change on China’s society and economy will be more prominent.

Third years of economic growth and combustion of fossil fuels have been driving up China’s greenhouse gases emissions; but the emission intensity has been declining since the Chinese government started to implement nationwide energy-saving and emission reduction measures and policies. China’s various sectors still have fairly large potentials to bring down their emission levels; increasing forests and grasslands coverage has been established as an important method in adding greenhouse gas sink; the energy sector and the industry sector enjoy a number of negative-cost emission reduction technologies. A consensus is yet to be reached on how to achieve the peaking of greenhouse gases emissions in China: development models, policies, scientific innovations and many other factors cause uncertainties in the timing and level of the peaking.

Difficulties and Challenges

Climate science, which studies the patterns of shifts in the climate, the extent to which changes occur, and their causes and impacts, is objective and open in nature. And admittedly, there are uncertainties. Yet when science is used as reference by governments to decide what early warnings should be heeded, and what actions to be taken to reduce and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, it becomes a political issue, closely tied to superstructures and ideologies. Thus it is fair to say that it is impossible for climate research, as reference for policies, to be independent and objective since it cannot shy away, starting from the very beginning, from being influenced by politics and value judgment.

Take the IPCC assessment reports for example. The IPCC is not a research body but an intergovernmental organisation. IPCC specialists and experts are nominated by governments, they write reports based on research papers already published and have to see their reports, before release, go through governmental review as well as peer review. The Summary for Policymakers (SPM), in particular, is approved line by line by governments. Therefore, the IPCC is little more than another arena of international climate change negotiations. Policymakers recognise and interpret the science according to their own interests and preferences only, making it extremely difficult to accommodate the objectiveness and the uncertainties of climate science.

Moreover, climate change adaptation, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and adverse effects mitigation are, essentially, endeavours made for future development and they touch upon all aspects of the society, economy and development. The science is complex. Whereas developed countries have a clear edge in their R&D capabilities, the prescriptions they give are often ill-suited for China’s realities. It remains a challenge to come up with climate solutions that meet China’s specific needs.

Key Research Points for China’s Future Climate Policies

Studying the Peaking

At the macro level, open, strategic, and forward-looking top-level design should remain the foundation for systematic scientific research. According to the principle of early warning, the research into climate change per se is no longer relevant. The kind of research that is useful is one that is in line with China’s overall reform and development strategy, one that helps accommodate the uncertainties of science, initiate action, and translate scientific findings into systems and mechanisms to  bring about green, low-carbon development. The top-level design includes: setting up the vision and political resolve and consciousness for human development approach innovation; drawing a technology roadmap guided by cost minimisation; drawing a finance roadmap to support the technology roadmap; establishing a policy and institutional reform roadmap to sustain the technology roadmap and the finance roadmap.

In 2009, China launched its national research into the levels at which China was going to achieve the peaking of its greenhouse gas emissions, an issue that has also been included in the Paris Agreement. Climate research in this regard should revolve around understanding the peaking and its implications. The history of industrialised countries shows that as the process of development advances, a country is set to peak its carbon emissions at some point. Differences in countries’ energy structures, economic structures, technologies, development modes and demographics result in different development approaches and carbon emissions approaches while different perceptions, development models, policies and systems lead to different levels and timing of the peaking (and corresponding income levels at the time of the peaking). When the United States peaked its carbon emissions, its emissions per capita reached about 22 tons, and the GDP per capita stood at $25,000; in Germany, it was 14 tons and $24,000; in the United Kingdom, 12 tons and $17,000; and in France, 10 tons and $23,000. China, as a developing country, faces unique challenges in peaking its carbon emissions because, globally, as a result of severe climate risks, China does not have much leeway, and because it must operate under a global climate management scheme. It is a scientific question worth contemplating and answering as to if China can peak its emissions in such an innovative manner that it is still going to be able to increase people’s income and welfare while protecting the environment.

Apart from research on the national level, all sectors, in particular the sectors with heavy emissions such as energy, industry, architecture and transportation, should conduct their own research and planning. Provinces are also advised to work out plans for the realisation of regional carbon emissions peaking according to their respective stages of development, resources and advantages, and external conditions.

In addition, since China has already announced that it is going to launch a nationwide carbon market in 2017, there are a number of questions that will have to be answered and a lot more follow-up work. For example, how to design the market rules?  How to finalise and allocate permits and quotes? How to admit and identify players in the market? How to ensure that the market is open, fair, just and transparent? How to regulate the market? How to prevent market failures? Technically speaking, what (trading systems, trading platforms, registration, etc.) are necessary for the smooth running of such market? How to assess the role the market plays in promoting green and low-carbon development?

Focusing on Low Carbon

The Paris Conference has once again sent out the message that the world economy should shift to green, low-carbon growth, and raised new requirements for technological innovation. The high-pollution, high-emission economic development has been pushing China’s environment to its limit. Therefore it is imperative that China gear towards a low-carbon growth model. Experience of developed countries proves that the shift is possible. In their respective modernisation, the United States and Canada chose a path featuring high carbon emission and high energy intensity with carbon emission per capita in the U.S. four times that of the global average. In comparison, Europe and Japan opted for an opposite path, with their average per capita carbon emission only half the U.S level.

The key to China’s shift to a low-carbon growth model is an energy revolution that accelerates the optimisation of its energy mix to shake off the dependence on traditional fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and gravitating towards renewables, natural gas and nuclear power. To achieve such transformation, innovating energy technologies and upgrading traditional energy saving and energy efficiency technologies are prerequisites.

Verifying Data

Assessing, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emission is China’s obligation to the international community, but more importantly the cornerstone of its own national policy. The United Nations published its Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories years ago. Since then China has also released its own provincial guidelines of the same kind. The work for standardising, labelling and identifying low carbon products has started. Last year, the government released the national standards on the assessing and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions for 11 sectors including chemical industry, ceramics, plate glass, cement, steel, civil aviation, aluminium smelting, magnesium smelting, power generation and power grid. China also rolled out national standards on the general rules for assessing and reporting greenhouse gas emissions from industrial enterprises.

For all the work above mentioned to be fully implemented, a lot of investment must be made in relevant basic research, human resources and fiscal support. Big data should be the primary reference for China when rolling out policies and actions tackling climate change.

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