How China’s ecological ‘red line’ fits into a much larger plan

Digital Originals

A scene along China’s coastal wetlands. (PHOTO: CFP)

On February 7, China issued guidelines that will draw a “red line” around crucial nature areas where environmental health should be preserved or restored.

The exact boundaries of these protected areas will be completed by the end of 2020, according to a statement by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council. The areas defined by the “red line”, are considered to be of “critical importance for natural functions and the protection of water, soil, forestry and biodiversity.”

In establishing new protected zones, the guidelines prioritized areas where industrial growth has been most rapid. Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, and regions along the Yangtze River Economic Belt are set to establish their red lines by the end of 2017. Other regions are due to set their ecological boundaries by the end of 2018.

Areas where red lines will be established in 2017

By 2020, red lines are due to be set throughout China and all future development, both nationally and locally, will be made in respect to the established environmental zones.

There are currently more than 10,000 protected areas in China covering about 18 percent of the country. These areas include nature reserves, forests, geological parks and drinking water sources.

Miyun Reservoir, Beijing

Miyun Reservoir in Beijing protects resources and water quality of the capital. A herd of swans are flying over the reservoir. (Photo: He Yong / People’s Daily)

Due to China’s rapid industrial expansion over the last three decades, large portions of these nature areas have been used for development and commerce, causing severe environmental degradation – as well as enormous greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

For most of the 20th century, the United States was the dominant source of greenhouse gases (GHG) released to the atmosphere. In the mid-1990s, China began to ascend as a major force in international trade and production. With it’s drastic rise in GDP, also came skyrocketing pollution around urban and industrial centers. Since 2005, China has far surpassed the U.S. as the leading GHG emitter.

Establishing red lines are a single component in China’s effort to preserve its natural resources and stem the tide of global climate change. In January, China announced that it would spend $360 billion through 2020 on renewable power sources like solar, wind and thermal.

The National Energy Administration (NEA) says the investment will create over 13 million jobs in the energy sector. It would also curb the growth of greenhouse gasses and reduce the amount of soot and smog that have smothered Beijing and other major cities in recent years.

Solar panels have been the center of China’s clean energy sector. Five of the six biggest solar firms worldwide are Chinese and increased production has reduced costs by about 30 percent since 2015. At present, China is the world leader in solar panel production.

Energy leaders expect by the end of 2017, China will have enough manufacturing capacity to produce 51 GW of photovoltaics per year – more than twice as much as 2010’s global production of 24 GW.

At a time when the United States is rolling back its environmental and climate commitments, China’s ongoing investment is helping it to emerge as an industry leader in the renewables market.

Hong Kong solar plant

Solar PV power generation in Hong Kong.

China has also committed to electric cars and non-emission vehicles. In 2015, China overtook the United States as the largest market for electric vehicles, with over 200,000 new registrations. Beijing and other major cities have been systematically removing high-emission cars. Around 4 million high-emission vehicles were taken off the country’s roads in 2016.

“The ecological red line aims to safeguard national ecological security,” the February 7 statement said, adding that the country must closely monitor them.

To help understand more about carbon emissions and the effect on climate change, China also launched its first carbon monitoring satellite, TanSat, in December, 2016.

The huge focus on renewable energy, that has also been joined by a national shift from heavy industry, has led to a decrease in coal use for the third consecutive year. Though China is still the biggest source of global CO2 emissions, there seems to be a path to reversing that trend to one of sustainable development.

While China has proven that it can be competitive in the global market place, its accelerated history of environmental impact has made it clear that progress, if unchecked, can come at great cost.

The Chinese phrase “hongxian” (red line) is frequently used to describe a limit that should not be crossed.