Q&A with Beate Trankmann, UNDP Resident Representative in China
1. What one issue do you think will make the most change for the future of development, and why?
Our future – including our ability to fight pandemics, among other risks – depends largely on our efforts to protect our environment and combat climate change. So, to me, the issue that will best shape how we develop as a society, is the growing urgency of shifting to a low-carbon economy.
We have just 10 years left to meet the 2030 Agenda and avert the worst effects of climate change. In many cases, the costs of ignoring the rules of science were laid bare by COVID-19 – and if climate change increases, the risk of future pandemics increases with it. Already, heatwaves are melting the permafrost covering the bodies of animals and humans buried by other deadly diseases, such as the plague and anthrax, with anthrax re-emerging in Siberia in recent years. So, as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also heed the warnings of our warming world, for greater resilience in the future.
The most effective way to do this is to shift to a new normal which is compatible with the boundaries our planet has set. This calls for ideas, solutions, and models that are both sustainable and comprehensive, and facilitate behavioural change across society – from governments to businesses to individuals.
The unprecedented global response to COVID-19 has already proven that this new normal is possible. The habits that quickly developed during the pandemic – such as working from home, contact-free services, and reduced travel – demonstrate that we can operate under a low-carbon, green model. For the first time in world history, there was even a virtual G20 summit.
With the opportunity to turn greener consumption and operating patterns into our new normal, we should not forget the lessons learned during this crisis or assume that they only apply in a crisis. Rather, we should build upon and mainstream them into government and organisational policies, as well as our behaviour; for instance, by allowing remote working more often to lessen travel emissions. Such changes should also be flanked by further incentives for renewable investments, ensuring a future that is low-carbon, resource efficient, socially inclusive and less vulnerable.
2. How can China (and possibly the world) achieve that ambitious result?
To further shift towards a green economy, China must continue to transition from a model of high-speed growth, to ‘high quality’ development. Making energy systems greener could boost global GDP by $98 trillion by 2050, delivering 2.4 percent more GDP growth than current plans. Boosting investments into renewable energy would quadruple jobs in this sector to 42 million globally in the next 30 years, with healthcare savings eight times the cost of the investment, while helping to prevent future crises. 6 million jobs could be created by embracing the circular economy, where used goods are re-used, recycled and upcycled at greater value. While 1.2 billion jobs – 40 percent of all jobs on earth – depend on a healthy and stable environment.
China is already taking key steps to achieve this, in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. It is at the forefront of solar technology and low-carbon transportation, including high-speed rail, bike-sharing, and electric vehicles. It has one-third of the world’s wind power, a quarter of its solar capacity, six of the top ten solar panel manufacturers and four of the top ten wind turbine makers. New renewable energy jobs in China now outnumber those created in the oil and gas industries. In 2017, China invested over $125 billion dollars in renewable energy, climbing at least 25 percent over the previous year. Its new cutting-edge transmission line that sends electricity along a pathway 600 miles longer than anything built to date is another potential boon for renewables.
China is also home to the largest carbon trading market in the world. As climate change will have implications for the country’s domestic and international development plans, particularly in infrastructure, fully factoring in the impact of greenhouse gas emissions is now an essential responsibility for China and the world.
Embracing new technology is also key. China’s digital sector was a major factor in its ability to shield citizens and companies against the economic impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and social-distancing. China leads the world in installed bandwidth and has around 854 million internet users. Following the outbreak, public opinion grew significantly more positive towards online working and online learning, up by 537 percent and 169 percent respectively, according to the WeBank. Companies also upgraded goods and services by developing online sales channels, shifting manufacturing and improving technology. Nearly 60 percent of enterprises were able to resume work and production after about a month of lockdown through flexible arrangements, such as remote work and automation, while 19.59 percent switched to online production (e.g. providing information and services online).
Like other big economies, it would be important for China to resist reverting to fossil fuel-based means to drive production and transportation. China can in fact position itself to transition to a green economy model that maintains growth by continuing to develop low-carbon infrastructure and energy, as well as new technologies. For instance, with oil prices reaching record lows in recent weeks, countries have an optimal opportunity to protect the competitiveness of renewables by raising carbon taxes. Such adjustments can help governments and businesses future-proof investments, laying the foundation of a sustainable society for decades to come.
3. What can we do as UNDP to help countries make it happen, in very concrete ways?
As the agency that leads the UN’s socio-economic response to the COVID-19 crisis, UNDP must help to convene and work alongside key stakeholders in countries around the world to promote and accelerate the transition to green economies. In particular, adopting a low-carbon infrastructure requires resources and funding that UNDP can work to mobilize, from both governments and the private sector. This calls for making a compelling business case for green investment.
To support this, UNDP recently launched an SDG Financing Platform in China to promote the development and expansion of sustainable finance. This brings together regulators, academics, business representatives, investors, and social organizations to discuss aligning standards to address a key challenge: to make impact-oriented investment and financing products more attractive to investors and more beneficial for those affected.
In addition, UNDP has been working to support China’s low-carbon transformation. This has included assisting China in establishing its emissions trading system through tailored policy and implementation support, as well as helping to increase energy efficiency in the motor, lighting, and logistic industries. UNDP has also promoted hydrogen-based clean energy solutions and is currently supporting the development and commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV).
In the push to adopt green models, UNDP remains focused on leaving no one behind and must gear its support to the most vulnerable. For example, while the development of digital infrastructure and online services shows great potential for lowering emissions without sacrificing economic growth, not everyone has equal access to technology, nor are they equally capable of using it. This is a focus area for UNDP in China and elsewhere.
In China, this digital divide is particularly pronounced between rural and urban citizens. Internet penetration in Chinese urban areas is 71 percent while that in rural areas is only 35.4 percent. Such inequalities will prevent many groups from enjoying the long-term benefits of a green economy, regardless of the promise of slowing climate change or creating new jobs. The digitalization of economies will create new opportunities; it will also transform jobs, and without upskilling some are at risk of losing out.
The transition to a green economy must, therefore, be as inclusive as it is environmentally conscious. As such, in the post-COVID-19 world, UNDP must continue working to support the vulnerable and marginalized by developing their capabilities to participate in the digital economy and guiding social safety nets to shield them against future shocks, so all are equally able to benefit from the new normal.
4. What one lesson or experience do you wish to share related to the above?
There is now a proven path for adopting green operating models and effective policies that countries can look to and pursue. Here in China, while many businesses suffered from the crisis at its peak, many were also able to rely on remote work to keep going, while consumers turned to online services, which bolstered local economies. A marked improvement was also recorded in air quality, with China recording over 25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the same time period in 2019 in the two-week period following Lunar New Year. As the economy opens up and industries and transport return to pre-COVID levels, high levels of air pollution can fast return. Decisions on clean energy to drive value chains and transport are key to avoid this.
COVID-19 has brought people together in a way that no amount of advocacy or awareness raising could. Countries, companies and communities now have a shared understanding that will make it easier to bring stakeholders together: no one wants to experience this type of crisis again.
The last few months may have offered a preview of how a green economy can work, which was an unintended consequence of government policies to curb the virus. In the post-COVID-19 world, a green economy must shift from being a side effect to a clear objective in and of itself, for China and the world.As we build back from COVID-19, climate considerations must be at the center of our recovery – the time to act and safeguard life on earth is now.
 https://irena.org/newsroom/pressreleases/2020/Apr/Renewable-energy-can-support-resilient-and-equitable-recovery (see full report from IRENA here: https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2020/Apr/IRENA_Global_Renewables_Outlook_2020.pdf)
 2019 HDR, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr2019.pdf