From Western plot to party line, how China embraced climate science to become a green-energy powerhouse.
By Geoff Dembicki Illustration by Eddie Guy May 31, 2017
In December 2009, climate-watchers the world over were trying to make sense of how the most promising attempt to date at preventing a global climate disaster went so horribly wrong. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference had just come to a close, and the summit, which had brought together 192 countries, was meant to create the world’s first legally binding treaty on global warming. But in its final days, during negotiations between China and the United States, talks had sputtered, teetered, and ultimately collapsed. To observers eager for good news, the result came as a stunning and disheartening anticlimax.
To most of the West, it appeared that China had come intent on playing the spoiler. The country’s coal consumption had been growing steadily for decades as the government pushed industrialization. In the four years preceding Copenhagen, the country added 500 new 600-megawatt coal plants; it was responsible for more than 40 percent of global coal consumption in 2009. From the outside, the rationale for China’s alleged resistance was rather simple. It just wasn’t in China’s interest to put the brakes on its rapid growth for environmental considerations. What could the country possibly gain by capping emissions?
Back in Beijing, however, there was no doubt about the threat of climate change. Behind closed doors, officials were telling a different story about the failed negotiations in Copenhagen