Prof Qi Ye, Director of the Institute for Public Policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He was previously Director and senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy (BTC) in Beijing.

His career has included developing China’s first low-carbon development plan for the city of Baoding in Hebei province. He was also a lead author on a 2018 report on climate risk indicators co-produced by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and the China National Expert Panel on Climate Change, give an interview to Carbon Brief.

Jocelyn Timperley hosted the interview in (Dialogue)

Host: Could you just talk a little bit about how climate change is part of the public debate within China and how it’s changed over the years? Is it discussed on TV and by the media a lot, for example?

Qi Ye: Climate change as a subject of public debate has evolved and changed quite a lot over the last two decades, ever since the formulation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] in 1992, and signed off back in 1994, and followed then by the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord and the Paris Agreement.

Initially, the way I see it, I see it very much as a science issue, and the government policy intervention was not really a big part of that. Ever since 2014, it’s been going for 13, 14 years, and this issue has become a mainstream issue, and [taken] very seriously by the government, by the academic research and the NGOs, and also in the public discussion on the subject.

Then it has evolved from a science issue to very much a social issue and to a policy issue. And there, also, understanding of climate change as an issue that played internationally, as a political issue having to do with distribution of responsibilities.

And now it has come to a stage that both policymakers, the research community and the public realise that this is not an issue just having to do with the cost when it comes to mitigation or adaptation. It also brings in a lot of opportunities for economic growth and for technological innovation. And if you can deal with this properly, it has now become a mainstream issue, linked very closely with the idea of green development and ecological civilisation.

Host: Could you talk a little bit about how the rising awareness of air pollution fits into that increasing concern about climate change?

Qi Ye: Air pollution has been a major concern of the public for quite a while. Ever since the beginning of 2013, because of these so called micro, small particulates PM2.5became so big. That also evolved from…you remember the pollution as a physical problem, to a social problem, to even a political problem. And the government actually responded to this quite promptly and forcefully and declared a war on air pollution. Shortly after that, it also [began] to include not only air pollution, but also water pollution and soil pollution.

Air pollution originated in a big part, we could say 80% of that, having to do with burning of fossil fuel, be it burning fossil fuel for power plant, burning fossil fuel for industry, and for transportation. So by addressing the air pollution sources, you actually can address these CO2 emissions. So there is a synergy in terms of policy and actions. So because of this synergy, in the last couple of years you have seen the government really step up, dealing with the air pollution, and at the same time reducing the carbon emissions and the other greenhouse gas emissions.

Host: Countries are set to submit a fresh round of UN climate pledges next year. Are there any indications from China that it plans to increase its ambition?

Qi Ye: We have not really had a good review yet – we means “the world” – as how the first round of pledges made under the Paris Agreement [are going]. I think the idea, under the Paris Agreement, is to look at how we have been implementing the original pledges, and how [we] have been doing so far, and then to see, looking to the future, to strengthen, to elevate the level of pace here in China. And we have seen some levelling off from 2014 to 2016. We also see worldwide, also for China, a resumption of growth of carbon emissions.

So I think all these factors would have to be put into consideration. So I hope, as many people do, [that] China will be looking at all of this carefully, and then to elevate the level of ambition from that. So before any new target, new pledges being announced by the government officially, I think this kind of work must be done.

Host: What does the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement and the recent report on 1.5C from the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] mean for China? Did it cause a big stir in China?

Qi Ye: The 1.5C study by the IPCC is very, very important. It has highlighted the urgency and significance that we work [must] harder to limit the temperature increase and other climate change impacts. So there has been a lot of discussion in China on this.

I think the reaction to the IPCC 1.5C report has been overwhelmingly positive. They’re also having discussion about the feasibility, what it takes to achieve 1.5C. The matter of fact is, you have to be able to achieve the 2C before you are able to achieve 1.5C. But aiming higher is always a good idea.

This is also consistent with traditional Chinese wisdom philosophy: you’re always trying to aim high. There’s a Chinese saying: if you aim high and you get the middle, if you [aim for] the middle, you will get the low. So I think it is a very good idea. But we need to figure out the feasible way to achieve the higher goal.

Host: You came to London to attend a debate last night on whether the Paris Agreement goals can be delivered. Can they?

Qi Ye: My point is, I think, it’s quite unlikely that we, the world, collectively, could deliver the goal of the Paris Agreement, which is the 2C goal. I think it’s extremely challenging, and if you look all the NDCs, nationally determined contributions, altogether, so far, that can only get us to 3C or 3.2C so far. And, so far, we have not been getting close to the 2C target, and in fact, I’m afraid we are getting even further away from that.

The current political situation, economic situation, geopolitics and all this enabling condition that we need to get to the 2C target is not quite cooperating right now. So that’s a very big concern.

You know, we see a lot of the energy wasted on disputes rather than on cooperation. We see that between China and the US, we see that here in Europe, and you have spent a lot of resources dealing with other issues here in the UK. And I think you are also spending a lot public resources on your own political situations right now. So I think that all of these are not really helping us on achieving the Paris target.

Host: You mentioned the US. How might the current US-China trade war impact China’s efforts to reduce its own emissions? And, also, how might the slowdown in economic growth in China impact decarbonisation efforts?

Qi Ye: Well, first of all, for the US and China, we know the [climate change] pact in 2014, and China worked very closely with the United States, between the head of states of the two countries, and they gave out a joint announcement on climate change. And later on in September 2015, the two presidents made a joint presidential statement on climate change.

All of these efforts, these collaborations, cooperations between the countries really helped to set the foundation for the success of the Paris conference to deliver the Paris Agreement.

And now, we do not really see that level of cooperation between the two countries, unfortunately. And we see more conflicts. And certainly this kind of cooperation has been distracted by other issues. So that’s not a very good sign.

And, domestically, because of the economic slowdown, again, a lot of the attention and the resources are now put in towards revitalising the economy, and to reassure that people are fine with their job security.

So all these developments are distracting from our delivering the Paris Agreement. However, we also need to look at, that by addressing climate change, [we] can also help to increase our level of technological innovation for green development, for clean energy. So that, on the other hand, can actually help. So just, we just need to figure out the way to achieve all these, balance the targets.

Host: China’s enormous Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, aims to finance and to build infrastructure abroad, beginning in nearby countries. But some economists – Nicholas Stern, for example – have expressed concern that it threatens to set these other countries on the same high emission development China’s now trying to exit. What do you think the climate impact of the Belt and Road Initiative will be? And are there signs that China will be pushing low-carbon development abroad in a serious way?

Qi Ye: I think [tackling] climate change is among the many aspirations for nations and local communities. And there is a need for addressing climate change. There is a need to address the need for the livelihood of the local communities when it comes to developing the infrastructure and developing the manufacturing industry, the service industry…So I think there are needs for all of this.

When you develop your economy, unfortunately so far, it involves burning fossil fuel. It involved the higher demand for energy and higher emissions of greenhouse gases. So, for any kind of development like the scale that we anticipate for Belt and Road, will have significant impact on the environment and also on climate.

On the other hand, though, it is something that we can also see as an opportunity. So there is a baseline, the baseline probably will go with a dirty polluting high-emission path of growth and development. But we could choose a different path with a green development, with lower emission, with high efficiency, with clean energy.

So what the world needs, and what we would like to see with this development, with this drive to meet the needs [and] the livelihood for the countries along the Belt and Road and local communities there, [is to] take that latter, different path.

So I think that they actually offer good opportunities. I don’t think that we are doomed to, that we have to take the conventional path. We can go with the green path.

Host: But do you think that that is high on the agenda in the Belt and Road Initiative? That it’s likely?

Qi Ye: I think China’s government has realised the need for a green Belt and Road. And I also believe this is not a Chinese project. This is a global project. [In those sorts of projects], first it needs to be initiated by the nations, by the local government, the local people and business. And I also think the rest of world that [is] linked to this development could actually provide tremendous help when it comes to the best solution for addressing the needs of these projects. So, I think you can’t really expect one country comes to these 60 some countries to get the job done. That is not going to be the way it works.

Host: I wanted to ask about coal. What’s the current trend of coal consumption and of building coal plants in China? Coal Swarm showed last year using satellite images that local governments in China are building more coal plants despite restrictions from Beijing. Is this continuing? And are there any signs of a slowdown in coal in China?

Qi Ye: Coal has been the primary energy source for the Chinese economy for many, many years. And over 95%, 90% of energy endowment is actually coal. So that is a big issue. Twenty years ago, 75%, or even higher, of the share of the energy comes from coal. And China made a deliberate decision to consistently decrease the share of coal consumption. So, by the year of 2013, we have seen effectively, very likely a peak of coal consumption that year. And ever since then we see 2014, ’15, ’16, three consecutive years, [it] decreasing over time.

Yes, indeed, 2017, 2018, we see a little bit of rebound of coal consumption. But my judgement of that, based on our study, I do not really see the high probability that the coal consumption will go back to the level of 2013, or exceed the 2013 level. Coal has played a very important role in driving the economy, but I think that we have effectively seen the end of coal-fired economic growth.

Clean energy, on the other hand, has been growing very, very fast, particularly in the sector of wind and solar, and that’s where the promise lies.

Indeed, we have seen a lot of businesses and local governments, they’re still quite keen on building more coal-fired power plants. And I can assure you that these, as attractive as they are to these developers, I’m afraid these assets will probably go as stranded assets in the long run. You know, build a power plant that will go on for a few decades, then time will prove this may not be a good investment vision.

Host: China’s 14th five-year plan for 2021-2025 is seen as a crucial period for its decarbonisation commitments. What’s your view on what it could look like in terms of the continued energy transition?

Qi Ye: Ever since the 12th five-year plan, there is a whole chapter dedicated to addressing climate change. My expectation is that for the 14th five-year plan, there will continue to be a whole chapter dealing with the climate change. Energy efficiency, clean energy and climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilient city development will continue to be the big part of that 14th five-year plan. It’s highly anticipated.

So I think China has done a good job to deliver the commitment set under Copenhagen. And China is doing its job to make sure that the country is on track to deliver the Paris goal. As you said, for the 14th five-year plan, it is very critical to achieve the Paris target. It’s also very critical to elevate the level of ambition for future. So, after all, this is not just to fulfil international responsibility, but also to explore alternatives and better ways to achieve economic prosperity and social stability.

Host: China announced just this week plans to build subsidy-free pilot wind and solar power projects. What’s the background to this announcement? And how could it influence the rollout of wind and solar in China?

Qi Ye: We have to realise that solar, wind, and clean energy projects, electric vehicles, all these newer models of the economy really need help from the government. And subsidies tend to be the first response. I have seen this all over the world, Germany, the feed-in tariff, and here in the UK, so you name it. So all these big economies have experienced this and China has been no exception.

We also have realised, in all these countries I’ve mentioned, that subsidies can become a real big burden for the governments. And China has realised that, and at the same time, they realised, all these new initiatives, new forms of economic models have to graduate at some point.

So, last year in May, the Chinese government decided it’s just about the time to graduate these new initiatives and to end the subsidies for solar PV. And this generated a big discussion, especially among the power sector and the business community investors. But after a few months of settling down, now they realise, well, there is a way out. And the way out would be better management, and better innovation, and you can actually do it.

So I think this subsidy-free pilot can help to explore the ways to address the need for clean energy, and also the provision of clean energy.

Host: I wanted to ask about China’s carbon trading scheme. China announced the initial details of this about a year ago. What stage of rollout is China at now?

Qi Ye: China started the carbon trading schemes with seven pilots in different cities and provinces. Then, by the end of 2017, China started a nationwide trading scheme. It started in only one sector, the power sector, which is probably the biggest stake leader among all sectors.

So it has been going on and, over time, it has been accumulating experiences on how to do this. And as we have learned from the EU ETS [emissions trading system], making the carbon market work is a very challenging task.

We have to make sure that we get high enough carbon price in order to actually sway and affect the business decisions, the investment decisions. And China, it’s a very young baby so far for the carbon project, and I think the experiences, lessons from the EU ETS, from the California scheme, different places, can actually feed in the good information and know-how for China to have a more effective and efficient carbon market.

Host: Very last question. We’ve had quite a broad sweep of different topics, but what do you think is the aspect of climate change policy or climate change in China that is most misunderstood by UK, or the US, or the West in general, for example?

Qi Ye: Well, I think most mis-understood is this idea of climate change as a hoax created by China. This is…well, we know climate change is a fact, and is affecting all of our lives. And to have potentially grave consequences.

The Pope once said: “Climate change is the greatest challenge to humanity.” And I actually believe in that. I think this is very real, and it is not a hoax, and it’s not created by China.

Host: Thank you.