State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Measuring the Effect of China’s Arctic Interests

By Adam Gordon

At today’s meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Sweden, the Council is voting on whether to give China, the EU, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore permanent observer status. Of the countries seeking permanent observer status, it can be argued that China has shown the most interest in the region. As the sea ice melts, the Arctic offers the potential for new economic opportunities through the opening up of new trade routes, energy resources, and fishing stocks. Given the unique sensitivities of the Arctic ecosystem and its relationship to rising global temperatures and sea level, new economic interests in the Arctic should be measured against the need for environmental protection. While the stewardship of the Arctic states is of obvious importance, as non-Arctic states emerge as major players in the region, we must also consider what types of stewards they will be as well.

Arctic Sunset
Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

China’s interest, for example, can be analyzed within the context of the country’s climate and energy policies as a whole. China’s aggressive economic growth has been tied to significant local and global environmental consequences. The ways in which China attempts to balance it’s economic interests and environmental responsibilities may provide a predictor of its future behavior in the arctic.

As a result of rapid economic growth over the past 20 years, there has been a surge in the demand for energy in China. China has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer and is now the largest producer of emissions, responsible for 25% of all global emissions. China has built energy capacity to fuel its economic growth primarily through the building of coal plants and now consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. These increased coal emissions have been accompanied with exponential growth in the emissions from cars, construction and industry. Since 1990, China’s emissions have almost quadrupled. This rate of increase has rapidly outpaced the rest of the world by an order of magnitude and poses serious domestic and global risks.

China’s most recent Five Year Plan (the 12th) attempts to address the environmental risks posed by its energy consumption by incorporating a set of energy and emissions goals. These goals include the binding measures to decrease CO2 emissions per unit of GDP, decrease energy consumption per unit of GDP and increase non-fossil fuel usage in primary energy consumption. Viewed on their own, these measures are impressive. However, the targets are small and in light of the fact that the country aims to grow GDP by 8% per year in the same period, China will still see a massive increase in emissions even if it meets all of its energy efficiency and clean production targets. In addition to suffering from unambitious targets, China’s energy and climate policies lack a clear roadmap for implementation and effective monitoring guidelines for enforcement. There are reasons to believe that China’s performance in building a more sustainable energy policy will improve, but its performance thus far has been lackluster. For example, it failed to meet its reduced energy consumption and emissions goals in its last Five Year Plan. Its inability to make meaningful adjustments to policy when faced with extreme environmental costs raises concerns.

China’s recent economic development has been exceptional and there is a strong argument that they have a need for continued aggressive growth. However, balancing that economic need against environmental standards will be difficult and poses serious challenges. How they determine to weigh those priorities are extremely important not just for China, but also for the other places where it asserts itself and for the world as whole within the context of global commons.

The Arctic Sea, which is opening up to development as climate change continues, is one such commons. The region has an amplified sensitivity to global warming and, as part of the climate system, changes in the Arctic pose global environmental risks. Damage to the Arctic environment due to economic activity may have unforeseen consequences. Few countries have proven themselves to be model environmental citizens, but as China and others seek greater influence in Arctic policy, it is important to consider how each new influence will affect the stewardship of the Arctic ecosystem.


Relevant Links:

The United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty Information Center

The Arctic Council

The Arctic Circle

The Earth Institute: Warming Arctic, Changing Planet

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Adam Gordon is an intern with the Columbia Climate Center and a Master of Science student in Sustainability Management with the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before attending Columbia, he co-founded NYCOMPOST and consulted with Farmhouse Solutions on a wide range of food system projects. He will be an EDF Climate Corps fellow with Colgate-Palmolive for the summer of 2013. 

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