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The backstory: China is a major player when it comes to energy. It leads globally in renewable capacity, but it still gets around 70% of its electricity from fossil fuels, mostly coal, and is also the top emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for about 30% of the world's yearly emissions. Recently, China has also faced climate challenges like heat waves, floods and droughts.
Back in 2015, the country started a climate initiative in Guangdong. It published rules that turned eco-friendly actions into credits, essentially creating a reward system. This idea caught on and spread nationwide, using data like step counts and travel habits to create what it called "carbon coins." Even banks like the People's Bank of China got on board, experimenting with "personal carbon accounts" and a unique "carbon to gold loan" system.
More recently: China has been on a mission to cut emissions to help with global climate change. A good place to start is in households, which contribute over half of the country's yearly emissions – more than 10 billion metric tons, according to a 2021 study by the China Academy of Science.
Last August, a metro station in Shenzhen introduced a promo for these "carbon coins." The initial response was so-so, but the local government is optimistic about the scheme.
The development: Since the launch of the Shenzhen carbon coin promotion in August 2022, 14.6 million users have hopped on board, leading to a cut of 720,000 metric tons in emissions. It works by letting commuters earn and swap carbon coins for shopping perks and travel cards, contributing to China’s plans to become carbon-neutral by 2060.
Shanghai is also on board with climate initiatives, with rules eventually fully tying local schemes to the carbon market. Businesses in Shanghai can use household carbon cuts to meet their reduction goals. In Guangdong, companies can cover 10% of their carbon reduction goals with these carbon inclusion credits.
But, one concern with these plans is that, by putting a lot of the effort for reducing carbon emissions on households, industrial polluters could end up not trying as hard. Next week, all eyes will be on the COP28 meetings in Dubai, featuring key players like China, the US, the UK and the EU. to see what plans these big countries have for global climate efforts.
"Carbon inclusion is a huge platform and an effective way to mobilize the public to practice low-carbon, zero-carbon and negative-carbon activities," said Xie Zhenhua, China's top climate envoy in August.
"Various actors have tried voluntary schemes that do things like visualizations or the sharing of energy or emissions data at a smaller scale," said Benjamin Sovacool, a professor of Earth and Environment at Boston University. "But they lack the scale and sheer scope of what the Chinese are conceiving and they were not integrated into carbon coins, which is a clever idea."
"It's all about verification," said Yifei Li, professor of Environmental Studies at New York University's Shanghai campus. "When it comes to the level of variability, how people conduct their lives is so wildly different. That is a big problem."