From severe wildfires to rising sea levels, climate change is increasingly impacting the daily lives of people around the world, environmental expert Barbara Finamore told a crowd of about 40 Thursday during an event led by the U.S.-China Institute.
She said China, which has the world’s second largest economy and the world’s largest emitter of carbon gas, is leading a global clean energy revolution.
Finamore, the senior strategic director for Asia at the Natural Resources Defense Council, led the panel, which focused on China’s role in fighting against climate change. The event was held at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Finamore has spent nearly 40 years working with environmental policies. She is the founder of NRDC’s China Program, the first clean energy program to be launched by an international non-governmental organizations. She is also the co-founder and president of the China-U.S. Energy Innovation Alliance.
Finamore said that at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, developed countries were tasked with the majority of the responsibility in addressing climate change. But since then, China — considered a developing country — has gradually led the worldwide fight against climate change.
She also spoke about China’s contributions to the goals listed in the 2015 Paris Agreement for mitigating the effects of climate change as an example.
“China was widely blamed for the failure of the global community to reach a comprehensive climate treaty,” Finamore said. “Yet only a few years later, China was instrumental, along with the United States, in building the momentum of the Paris Agreement.”
According to Finamore, when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, its coal-related emissions began to increase dramatically. In 2006, China became the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. However, China’s coal emissions started to decrease in 2010 when the government realized that industrial exports with high coal emission came at the expense of citizens’ lives, she said.
“It was like living in an airport smoking lounge [when] living in Beijing,” Finamore said. “The public concern soured, and the government realized that something had to be done. So by the end of that year, it had invested $1.7 trillion in air pollution control.”
Finamore said China took advantage of the opportunity to harness renewable energy in the fight against climate change, and in 2013, China became the world’s largest investor in renewable energy.
“A little more than 10 years ago, China was already the leading exporter of solar panels, and today nine out of 10 of the largest solar panel manufacturers in the world are Chinese,” Finamore said. “By next year, China will have the four times the solar energy capacity of the United States.”
Finamore also discussed the importance of China’s role in the electric vehicle market. She said China owns 40% of the world’s electric vehicles and 99% of the world’s electric buses.
“China has [been] doing more than anybody else to move this new technology a lot,” Finamore said. “I never saw the vehicle industry move so fast. Within weeks, every major automaker had announced new investments, new production facilities, new modelized electric vehicles.”
Finamore said China has also tried to develop green finance — the use of financial instruments to incentivize green initiatives — through Belt and Road Initiative, which was proposed in 2013 by President Xi Jinping. The initiative aims to connect finance and transportation among 70 countries, which comprise 60% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“The type of project that China funds is going to play a really important role in determining whether these recipient countries will make their Paris agreements,” Finamore said. “China, in fact, is financing more renewable energy in these countries than anyone else.”
Finamore said the NRDC in Beijing has tried to propose mandatory cuts on coal consumption, along with 20 other Chinese institutions. She emphasized the importance of cooperation in the fight against climate change.
“It’s very clear that every country, every city, every state, every province, every investor, every business, every person needs to jump into the battle, step up their level of ambition and accelerate their effort,” Finamore said.
Chengcheng Mei, a first-year graduate student majoring in public policy, asked how students and NGOs like NRDC can make up for the lack of policy analysts and bring attention to policy making.
Finamore said that only requiring people to stop burning coal without offering detailed planning is not an effective policy, so NRDC focuses on four provinces in China to help them implement the clean energy locally.
Xinruihe Wang, a freshman majoring in communication, said she was shocked to learn all the things China has done to fight climate change.
“As a Chinese [person], I never paid close attention to this kind of issue, and it’s pretty interesting to hear [Finamore saying] that China actually plays a really important role in saving the planet,” Wang said. “I’m really proud of that.”