Dr Jian Liu, Chief Scientist and Director of the Science Division, UN Environment Programme, in an interview with the Polish newspaper, Rzeczpospolita.

The following interview has been translated and edited from the original, available at Rzeczpospolita.rp.pl

When did Chinese officials realise the need for radical changes in the country’s economic policy to consider climate and environmental protection? As an example, a year ago China decided to stop using coal for heating homes and public buildings.

Dr Jian Liu: Two issues are important in this regard. The first is that only 30 years ago about 400 million people in China – 1/3 of its population – were living below the poverty line. Today just 10 million people are in this situation. The Chinese government and society need to find a delicate balance between continuing economic growth and effective resource extraction and caring for the environment.

Since the 1990’s, China has come to view environmental protection as an integral part of state policy. The level of success in this sphere has depended on the level of ambition of local leaders in different regions of the country. We can see that in the recent shifting away from coal to gas in the heating sector.

The European Union wants to set an ambitious goal of climate neutrality by 2050. What do you think about such a plan?

It is proof of the leadership of the European Union. If it succeeds in setting and reaching this goal together with its member states, then more countries will follow suit, including industrialising countries. This in turn will allow the international community to jointly reach the necessary goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions set forward in the Paris climate agreement.

The same ambition is being pursued by more and more US states and cities – despite the fact that the US is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. What about China, which a few years ago had objections to the Kyoto protocol?

There is growing awareness amongst China’s policy makers regarding climate change and the atypical weather events it is causing, such as extreme heatwaves. China sees climate change as a serious challenge and is taking action – today it may even be called a climate leader. About half of global investment in renewable energy development is being spent in China. It is also worth mentioning that at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009, China set forward its goal of reducing the emissions intensity of its economy which it has already achieved.

China seems to have embraced the energy transition taking place around the world – and is profiting from this shift. Most of the world’s solar panels are created in the country. Will China be the place, where we will see the next breakthroughs in energy storage? This would be a much needed development in renewable energy development.

China has a coherent policy in terms of promoting innovation, research and development. In comparison with Japan, the United States or European Union they seem to be a bit behind the curve when it comes to energy storage – not on the R&D stage, but with the market dissemination of projects.

A third of global installed wind power capacity is located in China. Beijing is also currently building 20 nuclear power plants. When can we expect the country to finally ditch high-emission energy production?

China started to change its energy mix from a starting point whereby 75% of its energy demand was supplied by coal power. The figure today is 60% and coal’s part in the energy mix will continue to decline in the coming years. At the same time, we are observing a dynamic growth of renewables, which can be seen with solar and wind farm installations on lakes and in deserts. Their further growth will be necessary for decarbonising the economy.

The European Commission wants to enforce better waste management and promote changes in national economies in the spirit of a circular economy. Are such trends also visible in Asia?

Of course. The Prime Minister of India declared during World Environment Day last year the goal of eliminating single-use plastic bags by 2022. Their example, coming from such a big market will inspire other countries on the continent.

Several Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, are implementing changes in classifying waste, which will allow them to use it more efficiently. Another country in the region, Singapore, already has such a sophisticated system. It also needs to be said that China as a whole has severely limited possibilities for exporting waste to other countries.

When I was talking to Chinese business leaders in Warsaw some 10-15 years ago, I often heard the argument that I should not be talking to them about limiting greenhouse gas emissions because China has the right to development – the same as Europe did at the beginning of the 20th century. What does Chinese business say now regarding this issue?

It is currently influenced by two schools of thought. The first one strongly focuses on issues related to justice, including the right to development. 10-15 years ago, the Chinese economy was much smaller and developing the economy was of the utmost importance, for example in terms of satisfying basic economic human rights.

The other school of thought focuses on a growing sense of responsibility towards people and the environment amongst the business community – a responsibility seen, for example, in the context of their value chains. In my opinion we can see quite a large shift towards this second school of thought and this is now the dominant view amongst business.

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