«China is green», says Lu Yongxiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Read time: 16 mins

Luca Carra interviews Lu Yongxiang, the current President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

China is the first contributor to the CO2 global emissions and one of the most polluted countries in the world. For some International agencies, the pollution in Chinese industrial and urban districts in China is out of control. What is your opinion? Which are the strategies to manage this emergency?

Climate change is a major global issue of common concern to the international community. It is an issue involving both environment and development, but it is ultimately an issue of development. As noted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (hereinafter referred to as UNFCCC), the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated from developed countries, while per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low. The UNFCCC stipulates clearly that the Parties to the Convention shall protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
China’s historical GHG emissions are very low and per capita emissions have been below the world average. According to the study carried out by the World Resource Institute (WRI), China’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion accounted for only 9.33% of the world total during the period of 1950~2002, and the cumulative CO2 emissions per capita are 61.7 tons over the same period, ranking the 92nd in the world. Along with the steady social and economic development, the emission intensity defined as the CO2 emission per unit of GDP declined generally. According to International Energy Agency (IEA), China’s emission intensity falls to 2.76 kgCO2/US$ (constant 2000 U.S. dollar) in 2004, as compared to 5.47 kgCO2/US$ in 1990, a 49.5% decrease. For the same period, emission intensity of the world average dropped only 12.6% and that of the OECD countries dropped 16.1%. In addition, 14%-24% of the total China’s emission is produced for the products that are consumed by other countries.

As a responsible developing country, China attaches great importance to the issue of climate change. The National Coordination Committee on Climate Change was established, and a series of policies and measures to address climate change has been taken in the overall context of national sustainable development strategy, making positive contributions to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.
In 2004, China Medium and Long Term Energy Development Plan Outlines 2004-2020 (draft) was approved by the State Council. In the same year, the first China Medium and Long Term Energy Conservation Plan was launched by National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). In February 2005, the National People’s Congress adopted the Renewable Energy Law of the People’s Republic of China, setting out the duties and obligations of the government, enterprises and users in development and utilization of renewable energy and a series of policies and measures, including total volume target, mandatory grid connection, differentiated pricing, special fund, favorable taxation, etc.
In August 2005, the State Council issued the Notification on the Immediate Priorities for Building a Conservation-oriented Society and Guidelines for Accelerating the Development of Circular Economy. In December 2005, the State Council issued the Interim Provisions on Promoting Industrial Restructuring and Strengthening Environmental Protection by Applying the Scientific Approach of Development. In August 2006, the State Council issued the Decision to Strengthen Energy Conservation. All those documents serve as the policy and legal guarantee to further enhance China’s capability in addressing climate change
A national coordination body for climate change was established. In 1990, the Chinese government set up the National Coordination Committee on Climate Change. Since the Committee was established, considerable work has been carried out in guiding the participation of the Chinese government in the relevant international negotiations, legislation development and coordination of policy and other measures dealing with climate change.
A series of policies and other measures have been taken to mitigate GHG emissions, including:

  • The Energy Conservation Law of the People’s Republic of China was revised and adopted on October 28, 2007, and entered into force as on April 1, 2008.
  • The Renewable Energy Law of the People's Republic of China was approved by the National People's Congress (NPC) on February 28, 2005.
  • The Medium and Long Term Development Plan for Renewable Energy was issued in June 2007.
  • Energy Law is now under drafting process since 2006, and expected to come to force in the coming near future.

Activities have been carried out to publicize the background and importance of tackling climate change, and also to improve public awareness of climate change. These activities include compiling and printing training packages, publishing reading materials, conducting training courses and workshops and disseminating information through broadcasting, TV, newspaper, web and other media channels. These activities have made more and more people recognize the potential impacts of climate change, understand how to mitigate these impacts and consequently encourage the public to make their own contributions. With subsidies from the government, 50 million energy-saving bulbs are now being distributed to households all over China, and within the coming three years more than 150 million energy-saving bulbs will be distributed.

Scientific research has been carried out with regard to climate change. The Chinese government has organized key scientific research programmes regarding climate change, including basic research and policy studies. In addition, relevant research institutes have conducted cooperative research with their peers in the international community. China’s Scientific & Technological Actions on Climate Change was jointly issued by 14 Ministerial departments and Scientific Organizations including Chinese Academy of Sciences in June, 2007.

China promoted macro-restructuring of Industries to improve energy efficiency in iron and steel, cement and coal-fired power plant industries. China shut down 355 small coal-fired energy-guzzling generation units with a combined generating capacity of 10.5 million kilowatts in 2007. The shut-down will save 8.5 million tons raw coal every year and cut the annual emission of 20,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 17 million tons of carbon dioxide. The energy consumption per-unit GDP in 2007 across China was lowered by 3.66%. Energy saved in 2006 and 2007 by key enterprises in the power-generation, iron and steel, building materials and chemicals industries equaled 147 million tons of standard coal.

By the end of 2010 China has set a target of cutting down energy consumption per 10,000 Yuan (1,460 U.S. dollars) of GDP by 20%, from 1.22 tons of coal equivalent (TCE) in 2005 to 0.98 TCE. The National Renewable Energy Medium- and Long-term Plan aimed at raising the renewable share to 10 percent in 2010 and 15 percent in 2020.

China is among the first to formulate a national Agenda 21 entitled China’s Agenda 21 - White Paper on China's Population, Environment and Development in the 21st Century, soon after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, and adopted a series of policies and measures taking into account its specific national circumstances, making positive contribution to the environmental protection.
China strengthens the implementation of relevant laws and regulations, including, inter alia: Law on Prevention of Solid Waste Pollution, Measures for the Management of Municipal Domestic Waste. The management focus will be shifted from the end pipe to integrated management, i.e. reduction of wastes from the source, recovery and utilization, and non-hazardous disposal. The processes of waste production and disposal will be normalized to the greatest possible extent, and the disposal of municipal domestic waste will be incorporated into the overall urban planning.
Great efforts have been made on the development and dissemination of advanced waste incineration technology, on the localization of relevant technologies, in order to decrease the cost and promote the industrialization of waste incineration technology. Greater support will be provided to the research, development, demonstration and dissemination of relevant technologies, and the development of waste disposal and comprehensive utilization technologies will be accelerated.
In 2007,China has issued its clean production evaluation systems for six industries as part of its nationwide efforts to curb air and water pollution. The six industries include cement, fermentation, soda ash, machinery, sulphuric acid and leather. The six sets of standards became effective to improve the efficiencies of resources, and minimize the emission of pollutants. The standards contains up to dozens of indices, such as the emission of air, water and solid pollutants, and the efficiencies of energy and resources utilization. China has committed itself to improving energy efficiency -- its goal is to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent, along with a 10 percent cut in major pollutants, between 2006 and 2010.

Climate change and environmental protection are the major concerns of the global scientific communities and whole public. These issues are not only comprehensive scientific issues but also closely related to human sustainable development. China is among all other nations to make efforts to address the issues by strengthening the formulation and enforcement of laws and regulations, pursuing energy conservation and energy efficiency, focusing on industrial restructuring, increasing the public awareness of climate change and environmental protection and promoting science and technology research. China and Chinese scientists are ready to join the global endeavor to cope with the climate change and environmental protection and make the due contribution.

What are most compelling problems of Chinese towns' environment? Air? Water? And how do you think to set up a sustainable development?

We are confronted with both air and water problems. Due to different degree of urbanization and current situation of imbalanced development, the severity of Chinese town’s environmental problems varies from place to place. Chinese government stressed in 2006 that we should attach great importance to the development of conservation culture (or called ecological civilization) by basically forming an energy-and resource-efficient and environment-friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth and mode of consumption. Sustainable development has been taken as a national strategy for development. Since China’s Agenda 21 was published in 1994, a series of policies and measures have been taken to turn sustainable development theory into practice. Ecological demonstration zones and eco-towns, eco-cities and eco-provinces for promoting regional sustainable development have been built across China. Priority programs and projects have been undertaken for capacity building, pollution prevention and control, ecological restoration, and public participation. A large amount of funding has been invested in pollution control of major rivers and lakes, and air quality improvement. 

In the 2010 China should become the first primary energy consumer in the world, overcoming USA. Your government sets a very stringent agenda to reduce energy waste. Nevertheless you are still very dependent on oil and coal - dirty energy sources. Furthermore - the central government seems not to control local situation. Local officials rarely heed Beijing's environmental mandates, preferring to concentrate their energies and resources on further advancing economic growth. Is it true? Is China jumping forward or backward?

Recognizing local officials’ preference of economic growth to environmental protection, environmental accountability has been incorporated into officials’ performance evaluation system. Local government officials and key enterprises will be appraised by their performance in achieving the goals for energy conservation and reduction of emission of major pollutants, and their performance in energy-saving and environmental protection is a key criterion for keeping their positions or promotions. Those who fail will be held responsible and their chance to be promoted to a higher rank is slim. In tackling the environmental issues, we have witnessed concerted efforts between the central government and local officials. Anyway the local officers also have already changed their conception for the sustainable development and have been under the surveillance by local people and media democratically

Which are the renewable energy sources that Chinese government wants to develop more?

While continuing to develop hydropower and coal technology, Chinese government has acknowledged the importance of clean and renewable energies. The National Renewable Energy Medium-and Long-term Plan aims at raising the renewable share to 10 percent in 2010 and 15 percent in 2020.
Great attention has been paid to the exploitation of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and ocean energy etc. Research and development should be enhanced in low-cost, large-scale solar energy utilization technology in order to promote the diversified use of solar energy. Whole focusing on solving technical problems related to high-capacity wind generators, we should also enhance research on the technical issues regarding the connection of wind power with the national power grid. Technologies for integrated utilization of renewable energy such as bio-gas, sunlight and wind should be developed according to the local conditions in order to secure energy supply for the rural areas.

In your opinion nuclear energy is a clean energy? Which are your plans for nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy could be a main supplement for fossil fuel with the success in commercial and industrial practice if without the problems of safety and nuclear waste disposal.
China’s nuclear power capacity is 9,100 MW, with 11 reactors in operation now, accounting for less than 2% of the total power generation. By 2020, the National Nuclear Power Development Plan has set up the target for total installation of 40,000MW in 2020, over 4% of the nation’s total power capacity at that time.

For many people the mega-dams on Yangtze-river is a sort of "crime" against local communities who are displaced and against ecosystems. What is your opinion? 

China has done a lot in preserving the original ecosystems and improving the local peoples’ livelihood while building the mega-dams on the Yangtze-river. Chinese government has put forward Principle of Relocation for Development on the basis of the previous compensational policies, thus leading to an integrated policy system for the relocation and resettlement of migrants. Taking the Three Gorges Projects (TGP) for example, the government set up exclusive funds for agricultural development and watershed management; enterprises are encouraged by favorable taxation policies to provide job opportunities to reservoir migrants; all programs and projects concerning about settlement of reservoir migrants have been enjoying taxation and fund-raising privileges.
Three Gorges Projects can provide annually the amount of clean energy equal to 50 million tons of coal, with an even lower price. Furthermore, Three Gorges Projects has made enormous contributions to the ecological preservation around the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze-river in terms of the prevention of flood disasters and schistosomiasis. Meanwhile, thanks to the Three Gorges Projects, the water quality and flow rate in the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze-river during drought period has been greatly improved, which is favorable for minimizing the damage resulted from environmental pollution and acid rain.

Industry is the fastest growing sector in China. In a recent interview, the ecologist Amory Lovins - whose recent book was translated into mandarin - told me that Chinese people and government are very focus on efficiency and ecology. Can you make some examples of the development of "green industry"?

In China, the development of green industry system is built on the basis of circular economy.  Here are two compelling examples.
China’s Shougang Group (Capital Iron and Steel Corporation), used to be located in the west of Beijing and polluted the air of Beijing for many years, was moved to Caofeidian, a town in Hebei Province in 2005 and transformed to a resource-conserving, environment-friendly company.  The company focused on resource recycling, waste reuse, and environmental protection when constructed the new workshops, and established a circular linkage among steel production, chemical engineering, and power plant.
The other vivid example is the Suzhou Industrial Park, which is located in east China and co-sponsored by Chinese and Singaporean governments.  The industrial park implemented the green industry system based on circular economy and achieved the harmonious development of economy, society, and environment.  Under this model, resources are used with higher efficiency and reused and recycled when possible, so that pollution is minimized and waste is reduced as much as possible.  100% of hazardous wastes, domestic sewage and rubbish have been well disposed and put into recycling process.

Don't you think it will be necessary to curb car sales in China and other goods in order to limit pollution? 

Along with the quick development of car and other durable commodity industries, Chinese government and the public have been concerning over the sustainable development of those industries and developed a clear long-term strategic plan, which takes the resources saving and environmental protection as the priority in the agenda.
Taking car consumption as an example, even though China is in its infancy of an “auto society”, the Chinese government encourages relevant enterprises to take an active role in producing energy-saving and environment-friendly cars. For example, European standards (EU-Ⅳ) for car emissions have been taken to prevent exhaust emissions in China. Some Cities such as Beijing, Shanghai started to run the E-Bus lines and many Car companies develop hybrid or plug-in E-car products.
Meanwhile, in order to advocate green consumption, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has issued standards to certify green products which are more environment friendly compared with those with the same utility. Using environment friendly products recommended by the government would benefit the society by reducing the environment pollution, saving resources and energy, as well as protecting human health.

How are scientific and technological relations with US and European countries?  And with Italy in particular? 

Since China and US established diplomatic relations and signed science and technology cooperation agreement in 1979, Chinese government has attached great importance to the scientific and technological cooperation with US.  The collaborative research fields between the two countries range from high energy physic, nuclear physics to biology, ecology, and environmental sciences, from energy safety to climate change, from science policy to technology transfer.  Many US national institutions, universities and corporations have built scientific partnerships with the Chinese counterparts.
China also enjoyed good scientific and technological relationship and efficient collaboration with European countries.  The forms of collaboration included academic exchanges, joint publications, joint research projects, scientist partnership, and joint centers and institutes.  The “Agreement for Scientific and Technological Cooperation between China and the European Commission” was signed in 1998 to promote Chinese scientific research institutes and universities to get involved in EU Framework Program.  Some Chinese scientists participated in the research projects of 6th framework program, and now they are actively engaging in the projects of 7th framework program.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has collaborative relationship with Royal Society of London, French National Research Council (CNRS), German Max-Planck Society (MPG), Italian Science and Research Center (CNR), etc. The cooperation areas between CAS and EU partners extended from mostly basic and energy research during the 1980s to life sciences and biotechnology, resources and environment, medical sciences and health, agriculture, information technology, material, aeronautics and space.  CAS and EU partners have established joint research institutions, such as CAS-MPG Institute of Computational Biology, Institute Pasteur Shanghai, Wuhan P4 Grade Biosafety Laboratory, and Kunming Millennium Germplasm Resources Pool; and joint research units, such as the Max-Planck junior scientists groups and partner groups, Sino-French joint laboratory.
Bilateral cooperation in S&T between China and Italy started in the 1970s after the two countries established diplomatic relations. The two countries have cultivated broader and deeper cooperation in science and technology. The cooperation has been enhanced from exchange of visits at the beginning to technology transfer and joint research programs. In particular, the CAS and the Italian National Research Council are now carrying out joint programs, each term in three years, covering earth science, environment, materials, energy, bio-technology, oceanography, and heritage protection. In the 21st century, the CAS and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) started to conduct big science projects, such as the Yangbajing Cosmic Radiation Lab in Tibet, which bears great scientific significance in studying atmospheric physics, nuclear physics, solar activities, wireless communication, high-energy physics and meteorology. Besides, the CAS has developed cooperation with other institutions and companies in Italy. For example, Ponte de Archimede, together with the CAS Institute of Mechanics, the CAS Guangzhou Institute of Energy and Zhejiang University, jointly developed the Archimedes Bridge project and the sea tidal electricity generation project

The rate of Chinese scientific development is high, but lower than that of GDP and other economic parameter. Is it true? How can you think to strengthen science and technology in China?

China has become the world’s third largest GDP producer in 2007 and the research and development expenditure in the same year was 1.49 percent of GDP. In Jan. 2006, the Chinese government set up a target in the National Plan on Medium- and Long-term Program for Science and Technology Development by 2020, with the share of R&D expenditure in GDP being 2.5 percent and the economic growth contributed by scientific progress being 60 percent. Although growing fast in economic power, China is still lagging behind developed countries in scientific research progress, which is shown by the status quo of less innovative work in the most cutting-edge areas and less competitive research forces.
To further build China’s scientific research capability, we should first of all train and attract more top scientists and technologists who have solid research record that have been recognized by global scientific community. Meanwhile, we have to promote higher education in cultivating young researchers’ competitiveness in doing sophisticated scientific research. Secondly, we should focus on building advanced research facilities that might bring about more innovative findings. Thirdly, we should build a more effective mechanism and create a better working atmosphere that could encourage basic research and technological innovations. We would also put more resources into inter-disciplinary frontiers that have attracted world attention and benefit to the Chinese people and the mankind. Last but not least, we’d better develop an innovation-friendly culture that encourages pioneering work and tolerates failure in research. Meanwhile, efforts should also be made in promoting science awareness among the Chinese people.

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