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Glen Hodgson is a senior fellow at the Conference Board of Canada

Climate change is a global problem – not just a domestic one − requiring a global solution, involving many countries. It will be hard to make meaningful global progress without including the largest producers of emissions.

The U.S. federal government is on the sidelines for the moment, although many U.S. states and cities are continuing with concrete action to reduce their emissions.

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China has replaced the United States as the world’s top energy consumer, accounting for 22 per cent of the world’s consumption. It is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for 30 per cent of global emissions, because of its heavy use of coal. China faces a huge environmental challenge. Poor urban air quality is contributing to reduced life expectancy and hampering quality of life for its citizens, creating a strong and immediate incentive to reduce Chinese reliance on coal. However, the conversion to lower-carbon forms of power production – natural gas, nuclear and renewables − will not be easy. This is an area in which Canada can help.

Canada could expand its role in support of China’s efforts to constrain, and then reduce, its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through an ambitious strategy of technical and commercial engagement. Canada and China agreed in December, 2017, to renew their bilateral understanding on environmental co-operation, and to seek ways to speed up the transition to a cleaner, low-carbon economy.

China is making progress. At the time of the Paris climate agreement’s signing in late 2015, China’s GHG emissions were expected to rise until 2030. China’s CO2 emissions now appear to be plateauing more than a decade ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment, according to the website Climate Action Tracker, produced by a consortium of climate scientists and think tanks. (No officially published annual emissions data for China apparently exist, so estimates are produced by academic institutes and scholars.)

The latest analysis indicates that growth in China’s CO2 emissions may have already slowed sharply, which at first glance is a positive sign for the prospects of reducing global emissions significantly. The ongoing reduction in Chinese coal use, for the third year in a row, is reportedly having a major affect. Coal-burning thermal power plants are a key GHG emission source, as China relies on coal for more than 60 per cent of its electricity production.

Yet, there are other reports that suggest China’s apparent progress may not be as impressive as it seems at first glance. While China halted plans in 2017 for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, Chinese firms are reportedly building or planning to build more than 700 new coal plants at home and around the world, according to Urgewald, an environmental group based in Berlin. Most of the plants would be in China, but roughly one-fifth of the planned capacity will be in other countries.

Adding more coal-fired power plants would take China in the wrong direction. Enhanced conversion to gas-fired power plants and aggressive use of carbon-capture utilization and storage technology would be part of an interim solution, although China’s natural gas distribution infrastructure is reportedly inadequate for a rapid or wholesale conversion.

The door is open if Canada chooses to step boldly through. A well-developed domestic plan to reduce GHG emissions would show the Chinese leadership that Canada is to be taken seriously in a low-carbon economy.

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What are the options for an ambitious engagement strategy? They include:

  • Creating a broad platform for shared research on all aspects of climate-change science, policy and emissions-reduction options;
  • Developing frequent exchanges of technical expertise, such as study tours and expert visits in both directions;
  • Aggressively promoting Canadian low-carbon technology and services, both those that are commercially viable and those at the precommercial demonstration stage. CANDU nuclear energy systems, carbon-capture utilization and storage and hydrogen fuel cells are leading examples of advanced Canadian expertise;
  • Ensuring full and innovative engagement of Export Development Canada, along with the Business Development Bank of Canada and Canadian Commercial Corp., with sufficient financial and risk-management support for Canadian environmental export businesses. These federal Crown corporations are already taking important steps to build their climate-change-related business. Deep engagement in China’s GHG reduction plans would be another order of magnitude, likely requiring additional financial capacity and expertise;
  • Advancing Canada’s natural resource capacity, such as the supply of natural gas, as part of a transition strategy;

In short, helping China to adapt faster could be Canada’s most important global contribution to the low-carbon transition.

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