Beijing’s poor air quality, with pollutant levels on some days so high that they cannot be measured, has become legendary and is emblematic of the situation in cities across China. Each year an estimated 1.2 million people in China die prematurely as a result of air pollution.
China’s environmental crisis is the result of decades of prioritizing economic growth, and the acquisition of energy resources to feed that growth, over concerns about the long-term health of its citizens. As both the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases and the leading consumer of energy resources, China’s response to its own ecological calamity has global implications.
Much of the current crisis is the result of China’s heavy reliance on coal, which accounts for nearly 70% of its total energy consumption. As China moves aggressively to meet ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions, however, its overall energy mix is starting to shift, with coal use beginning to decline. In 2014 the amount of coal-produced electricity fell for the first time since 1974, while electricity from alternative energy sources increased by 20 percent.
China has become the world leader in hardware for harnessing renewable energy, such as solar panels and wind turbines. So far, however, capacity to produce such equipment has outstripped the country’s ability to use the resulting clean energy due to piecemeal policy implementation and an emphasis on manufacturing over adapting existing energy infrastructure such as power grids.
For the foreseeable future China’s need for imported fuel will continue to increase its global presence, opening the door for potentially greater cooperation with other nations in energy production and delivery but also increasing the likelihood of competition for scarce resources. This competition will result in new diplomatic and potentially military challenges. The very real needs for energy, water and other resources, and the concomitant impact of urbanization upon the environment, have far-reaching domestic and international implications. China’s Christians share these concerns as they grapple with the question of what it means to be responsible stewards of creation in an era when food and water security are among the most critical global issues.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio