ISSC concept note: Low-carbon energy transitions that meet the needs of the poor in China

  • Published 18/05/15

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China’s past three decades of rapid economic growth have brought many out of poverty and expanded energy access considerably. China is today the world’s largest energy consumer by volume (IEA 2013). But much of this expanded energy access has been achieved by burning coal: in 2012, around 76.5% of energy in China came from coal (China National Bureau of Statistics 2013), a highly polluting and carbon-intensive fuel. The period has therefore also seen grave costs to the environment and public health. A recent study by Chinese scientists found that smog caused by coal burning killed an estimated 670,000 people in China in 2012 (Li 2014). Beyond such striking, direct effects on human health, China’s energy mix lies at the core of a litany of interlocking health, environment and social challenges, from pressures on water supplies to worker safety – and, perhaps most prominently in the international arena, global climate change.


China is today the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter by volume (Netherlands Assessment Agency 2013), and in 2009, around 77% of China’s greenhouse-gas emissions came from energy generation (World Resources Institute 2009). Climate change will have highly uncertain and potentially hazardous effects in China, particularly on energy, water and food security. For example, there is the potential for severe water shortages and more flooding disasters. Decades of export-oriented growth mean China’s eastern seaboard cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change and sea-level rise, with warming potentially increasing the frequency and level of inundation in delta megacities, such as those in the Pearl River Delta, due to storm surges and floods from river drainage, potentially affecting residents and damaging critical infrastructure in heavily industrialised low-elevation coastal areas (McGranahan, Balk and Anderson 2007). These hazards – like many others, from desertification to water scarcity – are known to have uneven social effects and will disproportionately affect the poorest in society. Therefore, efforts to move China away from high-carbon energy pathways and towards large-scale low-carbon energy access are crucially important aspect of achieving a transition that addresses climate change and meets the needs of the poor.