Pointing China on a sustainable path others can follow

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China, with its enormous cities and vast countryside, is a potential star in the ongoing global drama of slashing carbon emissions. In this week’s Nature, six sustainability experts propose a script.

China already is a star in unleashing carbon dioxide emissions. In 2011, it accounted for a quarter of the world’s total. The problems – air pollution, squandered energy resources and economic stresses that squelch growth – also come with tremendous opportunity for China to be leader in slashing emissions. Along the way, China’s vast variety of economic and geographic circumstances offer a chance to set examples for its global neighbors.

In “A low-carbon road map for China,” six experts, from the United States, Great Britain and China, point out that recycling, renewable and a reinvigorated domestic energy market offer a way to significant impact.

”Reducing CO2 emissions in China has profound implications for global sustainability,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University and is director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

To meet its international obligation to cut CO2 releases, make the most of its fossil energy supplies and battle its choking air pollution levels, the experts lay out a five-pronged script:

Rebalance its coal-heavy energy portfolio with recycling and renewable energies, set emissions-mitigation indicators to physical output rather than to economic growth, balance regional energy supply and demand, link energy to market mechanisms rather than set centrally by authorities and reduce air pollutants.

They point to the opportunities to fill gaps, such as being able to better link their burgeoning ability to produce the mechanics of renewable energy with their oft-deficient electrical grids. Or work harder to substitute natural gas and nuclear energy for coal.

The experts point out options to better spread the burden more equitably. China struggles with imbalances between the rural areas that often produce energy and metropolitans that burn through it. The economic development of poor regions that depend on carbon-intensive industries such as cement and steel would benefit from more forgiving emissions targets, they suggest as an example.

”Evaluating options requires a good understanding of China as a coupled human and natural system,” Liu said.

The other authors are Zhu Liu, sustainability science fellow at Harvard University; Dabo Guan, associate professor in environmental economics and governance, University of Leeds, UK; Douglas Crawford-Brown, director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, University of Cambridge, UK; and Qiang Zhang, associate professor of Earth systems science and Kebin He, professor of

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