Porritt: China facing first real test of climate credibility

Much blame for the collapse of Copenhagen has been aimed at China. But in Prospect Jonathon Porritt argues that China will dominate the green technology market.

Since the ‘managed collapse’ of the Copenhagen summit in December, much influential commentary in European media and from governments including our own has focused on blaming China for the failure of the talks.

Green guru Jonathon Porritt delves into the arguments around China’s green credibility in a new article for the latest edition of Prospect magazine. He writes:

“China’s middle classes do not want to be ordered off the ladder of consumption just as they have gained their first toehold on it, and the poor still expect their government to get them onto it quickly. Their leaders fear public anger on economic grounds much more than they do on any environmental issue.”

He goes on to describe how China has what he terms “a classic frog [First Raise Our Growth] economy,” which he notes has “benefited hundreds of millions of people. The number of Chinese living in extreme poverty dropped from 685 million in 1990 to 210 million in 2007” adding, “Who can argue with the mission to eliminate extreme poverty, while improving the living standards of the rest of the population?”

Who indeed? But this is where the real fallacy lies. Development need not mean high carbon growth. In fact, in a carbon-constrained world that’s just not an option if we are to stop dangerous warming, which is why what Porritt has to say about China’s investment decisions on clean energy is so important point.

Porritt highlights that many expect that China will overtake all other countries to “dominate the market for green technologies” with HSBC estimating the renewables market will be worth $2 trillion by 2020. This view is shared by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Geoffrey Lean who writes on Grist:

“The main challenge from the world’s new industrial superpower [China] is not that it will continue to use the dirty, old technologies of the past, but that it will come to dominate the new, clean, green ones of the future.”

As Porritt explains, “China is focused as much on those international markets as on its own energy challenge” and points out that China’s “trio of world-leading solar companies, Suntech, Trina and Yingling, are racing to be the first to achieve “grid parity”—the point at which solar-powered electricity costs no more than coal-powered or nuclear-powered. Solar companies in the US and Germany are worried about this competition.”

With conflicting views of how green China will be, Porritt says:

“The first real test of this will be its next five-year plan, for the period 2011-15. In November 2009, the China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development presented (Chinese Premier) Wen Jiabao with a low-carbon road map for inclusion in the plan.

“One of its scenarios is a ‘business-as-usual’ route to prosperity, resulting in emissions of 13bn tonnes of CO 2 a year by 2050. Then there is an ‘enhanced low-carbon scenario’ that would see emissions peaking in 2025 and reducing to 5bn tonnes a year by 2050. Caught between those two scenarios, and the eight billion tonnes a year that divide them, lies the future of human civilisation. Put at its simplest, there is no sustainable, equitable future available to humanity unless China makes that possible.”

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