December 2009 does not seem so long ago. The UN climate conference in Copenhagen had just come to a disappointing end, and I headed home feeling depressed. I returned to China for holiday and was surprised to see the widespread awareness of climate change and the collective sense of urgency for action. The concept of "low carbon" was discussed in all major and local newspapers. To my amazement, I even found an advertisement for a "low carbon" wedding. I finished my holiday and went back to Washington with optimism and hope: Despite the failings of Copenhagen, China, the biggest emitter in the world and the largest developing country, was going through a real transformational change. China clearly saw action on climate change as serving its own interest and as an opportunity to pursue a green growth model that decouples economic development from carbon emissions and resource dependence.
In the past five years, the world has witnessed the emergence of China as a leader for tackling climate change. A few weeks ago, colleagues at the World Bank Group heard an evidenced-based presentation by Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua from the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) of China, who showed what China had done in the past, is doing now, and plans to do in the future. He shared his candid assessment of the challenges, mistakes, and lessons learned from China's experience.
China’s progress is impressive. Between 2005 and 2013, average economic growth has been above 8 percent while the country’s emissions intensity has decreased by 28.5 percent compared with 2005 levels. This equates to emissions reductions of 23 million tons of CO2. These reductions were achieved through massive closures of inefficient coal fire plants, aggressive energy efficiency programs, expanding the renewable energy program, and large investments in clean technology.
While these numbers are impressive, sustaining them will be harder. Over the last 10 years, China has targeted its "low-hanging fruit" for mitigation options. The challenge today is how China will sustain annual GDP growth of more than 7 percent while continuing to reduce its economy’s emissions intensity.