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Can Energy Efficiency Help Chinese Cities Beat Air Pollution

Sharon Zhou Researcher, The Climate Reality ProjectIn December 2015, Beijing issued its first-ever “red alert” for smog, its highest air pollution warning, which closed schools and restricted the number of cars on the road. Less than two weeks later, it issued its second.

Somewhat ironically, as people in Beijing were trapped under a dome of smog, world leaders were gathering in Paris for the United Nations climate conference (COP-21) seeking solutions to achieve a “clean and resilient” future. At COP-21, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to combat air pollution and peak emissions around 2030 by curbing coal consumption and scaling up renewables.

President Xi’s climate commitments can be seen as part of the government’s ongoing “war on pollution” that began in earnest in September 2013 when the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued the Air Pollution Action Plan. The action plan and new amendments to the Air Pollution Control Law last year mandate higher penalties for polluters and more stringent requirements for emissions monitoring.

However, many Chinese cities remain shrouded by persistent pollution so severe that last year even the mayor of Beijing called his city “unlivable.” Some city officials are now casting a hopeful eye on energy efficiency as a cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption and cut emissions. Using energy efficiency as a promising “weapon” against pollution was notably highlighted by Chinese mayors as they discussed their experience with low-carbon development and pollution control at a COP-21 summit for local leaders.

The China Environment Forum’s latest InsightOut issue, “Breaking Out of the Dome,” explores the potential of energy efficiency to clear urban skies. Drawing on opinions and recommendations from both Chinese and American experts, these solutions focus on major cities, not only because they are at the epicenters of China’s war on pollution, but because they possess the greatest potential for bringing clean energy solutions to scale.

Signal From the Top

It has been a decade since China’s leaders made improving energy efficiency a top priority. In the 11th Five-Year Plan they set ambitious national targets for lowering the energy intensity – the measure of energy efficiency of the country’s economy – 20 percent from 2006 levels by the end of 2010. They also launched an aggressive campaign to pressure the country’s top 1,000 energy-intensive industries to step up their energy-saving efforts.

Beijing updated the target in the 12th Five-Year Plan, aiming to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP an additional 16 percent below 2010 levels. By the end of 2015, the country had not only realized but exceeded the new goal with an extra 3.7 percent drop in energy intensity. At the 2015 National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang further stressed that the government is committed to intensifying improvements in energy efficiency.

Qinnan (Sharon) Zhou
Qinnan (Sharon) Zhou Researcher The Climate Reality Project

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