China’s growth, China’s cities, and the new global low-carbon industrial revolution

Unless the world embarks now on a new energy and industrial revolution it will be very difficult to manage the huge risks of climate change. Business-as-usual for the next few decades will bring a significant chance of global temperatures not seen on the planet for tens of millions of years, long before homo sapiens appeared, with great risks of migration of hundreds of millions of people and extended and severe conflict.

However, the new industrial revolution and the transition to low-carbon growth constitute a very attractive path. It is likely to bring two or three decades of innovative and creative growth and large and growing markets for the pioneers. Low-carbon growth, when achieved, will be more energy-secure, cleaner, safer and more bio-diverse than its predecessors.

Cities around the world are responsible for around two-thirds or more of both energy and greenhouse gas emissions. The choices that are made about transport, infrastructure, building, and industry in cities, as they grow rapidly in the next two decades, will determine, via the technology and ways of life they lock-in, whether mankind can both manage climate change and draw the benefits of the new patterns of growth.

The challenge for the world as a whole is to cut global emissions by at least 60 per cent between now and 2050, whilst maintaining or enhancing growth and overcoming poverty. Cities will be at the centre of this story.

China’s development as the world’s fastest-growing large economy, with very rapid urbanisation, will be at the heart of these developments; low-carbon growth in China is vital for the world as a whole and for China’s own future. China is already at the forefront of the development of new low-carbon technologies and China has a great deal to gain by being in the vanguard of this new global growth story.

The urgency, the scale of the required changes, and the magnitude of the opportunities in the new economy, mean that green policies should be at the core of the next few five-year plans.

We already know, from the plan outline published earlier this month, that the low-carbon economy is a central priority in the 12th five-year plan.

Nicholas Stern