Can China lead global action against Climate Change?

Zoe Dean

The pursuit of sustainable development – Sustainable Development Goals and restoring global ecosystems.

Degradation of ecosystems has been caused by rapid industrial growth and fuelled by an overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels. This dependence on unrenewable energy was instigated by the focus on accelerated rather than sustainable development over the last few decades. The impact of climate change is being felt worldwide, from droughts to rising sea levels, to an increase in extreme weather events. The effects of climate change are also distributed unevenly, affecting lower-income countries more adversely, even as the main contributors are the developed economies.

In the face of a bleak environmental future, recognition and focus on the issue of climate change is growing internationally. In March 2019 the United Nations General Assembly declared that 2021 to 2030 would be a decade of unprecedented focus on restoring global ecosystems. This is to complement the existing Sustainable development goals aimed to ensure that development doesn’t compromise the quality of life for future generations.

In recent years, higher-income countries are not only transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy but are also increasing their investments into developing the technologies needed to support sustainable development and to mitigate environmental degradation. In no other country has this transition been more pronounced and profound than in China.

China’s economic rise and environmental impact

Since 1978 China has been on an impressive drive to develop its economy, introducing market and labour reforms that have subsequently pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Its economic rise was marked when China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy in 2010. Throughout its development Chinas economic growth has been supported by heavy industry, such as mining and ore processing, as well as construction. Such industries continue to support Chinas economic position and currently account for 48% of its GDP.

China’s impressive economic development came at a substantial cost. Its severe over-reliance on coal for heavy industry caused shocking levels of air pollution which came to a head in 2013. At this time Beijing’s air pollution measured between 400-800 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5. PM2.5, an atmospheric particle that can damage health in excessive amounts, is considered unsafe in levels above 100 micrograms by the WHO.  

China’s problems with pollution are a massive contributor to global warming and remain the largest producer of CO2 worldwide as a consequence of its heavy industry. In 2017 CO2 emissions from fossil fuels measured 9,838.8 million metric tons making up 26% of global CO2 emissions.

A Green turnaround

Recognising the debilitating impact of pollution on its economic growth as well as the effect this was having on its geopolitical position, China has embraced environmental reform as rapidly as it embraced economic reform decades earlier.

The last decade has seen rapid growth in green tech with China now being the largest producer of solar panels and lithium batteries. Additionally, it owns half the world’s electric cars and nearly all the worlds electric buses. To solidify this further, in September 2020 president Xi Jinping stated that China will become carbon neutral by 2060 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. This moved China ahead of the US, who had dropped out of the Paris accord at the time, in positioning itself as a global leader on the issue of climate change.

A country of contradictions – Can China help lead climate change?

This manoeuvre towards global climate leadership, alongside Chinas impressive examples of developing renewable energy technology, presents a unique contradiction.

On the one hand, China’s move to lead the world towards sustainable development, particularly within green energy technology has injected necessary momentum needed to address climate change more seriously. There is potential that this could encourage the implementation of more policies, attention and finance by other higher-income countries towards solving the climate change crises.

However, China still relies a hefty 58% on coal for its energy and has even lifted previous construction bans on coal plants since 2018. As China’s economic stability and growth still rely on heavy industry and construction, it is difficult to formulate a path towards green energy as rapidly as China claims to intend. It remains to be seen if China can produce a green revolution as quick and impressive as it produced its economic development.


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