Written by Jonna Nyman.

China faces a daunting double challenge: satisfying its growing need for energy while at the same time dealing with the ongoing challenges of climate change. These are not only big challenges in their own right – the solutions to them have also often been in conflict.

Economic growth fuelled concerns over energy supply and energy security in China during the 1990s and 2000s. Energy supplies underpin economic development, and disrupted supplies would affect military and political survival as well as economic stability. But China’s energy choices also have a major impact on the global climate, and China is itself particularly vulnerable to climate change. This leaves China in an unfamiliar predicament: having to deal with the energy security concerns of a developing and growing state, at the same time as climate change makes an energy transition increasingly necessary.

China is having to develop it’s own solutions to navigate these challenges. Both issues have risen rapidly up the government’s priority agenda: Xi Jinping’s new National Security Outlook includes resource security and ecological security as well as economic security alongside more traditional national security concerns.

The Challenge

As in Western states, China’s early energy security debate focused on the security of energy supply. But unlike many other states, China’s domestic energy resources meant it could remain largely self-sufficient, easing concerns over imports and dependence on foreign energy supplies that may be disrupted in times of crisis. Self-sufficiency has been kept around 90%, through a focus on boosting domestic energy production. Although China remains largely self-sufficient in energy, it has become increasingly reliant on oil imports – and much of the discussion of energy security has focused on the geopolitical implications of this.

But more recently, climate change (and air pollution in particular) has begun to shift the debate. Coal has played a central role in China’s energy mix: it was in many ways an ideal solution to China’s energy concerns in the early days of industrialisation. Cheap and domestically available, a heavy reliance on coal caused no supply or dependence concerns. Even in 2015, coal represented 64% of China’s total energy consumption. Today, China is ‘the world’s top coal producer, consumer, and importer and accounts for almost half of global coal consumption’. But because of coal, China is now also the top energy-related CO2 emitter globally.

Alongside larger impacts on the global climate, air pollution is a growing problem in Chinese cities. In 2013, air pollution reached unprecedented off-the-scale levels and the media quickly labelled the crisis China’s ‘airpocalypse’. More recently, Beijing issued its first ever pollution ‘red alert’, signalling pollution levels so high that schools and factories were required to close and people were asked to stay at home. In 2014, a study from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences found that pollution levels have made Beijing almost ‘uninhabitable for human beings’. Statistics on premature deaths caused by air pollution in China range from 400,000 to 1.5 million annually: and the majority of China’s air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels.

Beyond this, China’s energy choices have a huge impact on the global climate. Climate change also affects China directly: it will have a severe impact on water and food security, on human livelihoods, causing an increase in disease and increasing numbers of climate refugees from the most affected areas. It also poses grave threats to China’s infrastructure, including water supply and railways as well as energy infrastructure.

Much has been said about China’s carbon emissions plateauing in 2015, but contrary to previous assumptions, new data suggests they may still be increasing. Dealing with these challenges is not an easy task. But China has made some impressive commitments on climate and energy. Energy and environmental questions are also increasingly linked together, which promises more coordinated efforts.

The Current Response: Evolving Debate

China has made impressive commitments on energy and climate change. The inclusion of ecological security in the New Security Outlook clearly illustrates that China’s environmental challenges are being taken more seriously. On environmental questions, there is a clear shift between the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans, with increasing focus on changing energy consumption patterns and the 12th FYP introducing quantitative targets. In the 13th FYP, these are taken even further, with serious commitments on renewable energy production in particular. The 2012 white paper on energy also places particular emphasis on ‘low-carbon development’ and sustainability.

Of all the responses, China’s 2014 declaration of ‘war on pollution’ is perhaps the most interesting. This suggests a real re-prioritisation of environmental questions. And in China’s first national security bluebook, air pollution is again labelled a threat to China’s national security: here it is made clear that energy security should not just focus on the security of oil supply, but actually requires an economic transition to improve public health. This debate is continually evolving, and it is clear that China is still working out how best to deal with these questions. This can also be seen in the response to the popular 2015 documentary film on China’s smog, Under the Dome. The Ministry of Environmental Protection initially praised the film, but when it went viral it was later removed from Chinese internet sites.

China’s total coal consumption appears to have peaked in 2013, and the percentage of non-fossil energy is increasing. Targets set in the 13th FYP build on these advances. That said, China’s coal consumption is still huge, and the scale of the problem means it will take time to see the effects of any policy shift.

But public pressure is mounting, with environmental questions a big source of public discontent. At the same time, new ways to manage daily life in China’s cities are emerging: smartphone air quality apps have proliferated, as have increasingly high-tech facemasks. Some schools have gone as far as building large domes with air-filtration systems to enable students to play sports ‘outside’.

President Xi has stressed the concept of ‘ecological security’, but so far there is no clear indication of what role this will play in China’s development. It may help raise the profile of environmental questions, which have tended to come after energy security in priority terms.  Energy and environmental questions are now increasingly merged, and policy shifts also reflect these connections. In many ways, this is driven by necessity: the sheer scale of China’s environmental questions make change both crucial and urgent.

Remaining Questions

The range of issues mentioned as issues of security in Xi’s new National Security Outlook exposes the difficulties of China’s dilemma: is it possible to have energy security, ecological security and economic security at the same time? Economic growth and development require energy, so energy has traditionally been prioritised over the environment. But now both are causing unrest and instability.

The extent to which it is helpful to deal with these issues as issues of security is also in doubt. Prevailing opinion suggests treating issues as security risks militarisation and polarisation, which is rarely helpful when you’re dealing with non-traditional security issues. China may be different here, as the possible downsides of securitization are less pronounced. Likewise, the scale of the problem suggests anything that will help deal with this dilemma is welcome: if framing ecology or even the global climate as an issue of security helps to mobilise resources, it may be the best solution.

China faces a difficult transition to a less energy-intensive economy and towards more sustainable energy choices. The monopoly of the big three SOEs in the energy industry has made major changes difficult. At the same time, citizens are becoming more demanding. Of course, a single state cannot deal with these challenges alone: they overwhelm traditional political categories and boundaries. Even the widely celebrated Paris agreement on climate change has serious flaws, with a significant gap between the targets set and actual national commitments made. But China is making important progress. Whether or not it’s ‘too little, too late’ remains to be seen.

Dr. Jonna Nyman is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at the University of Leicester. Image credit: CC by So8/Flickr