Is China Still a Developing Country? And Why It Matters for Energy and Climate

solar panels in front of shanghai skyline

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China’s dramatic economic growth in the 21st century has made it not only the second largest economy in the world but also a powerhouse in the global energy system. Now, as the top energy consumer and the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is being closely watched and judged as its impact on energy markets and climate grow more profound. Looking forward, many issues are expected to shape the evolution of China’s energy sector, not least of which is its development status. Is it still a developing country or is it now an advanced economy? While China’s economic might makes it a superpower alongside the United States, it still faces many of the major challenges of a typical developing country, such as widespread energy poverty, including 400 million people without access to clean cooking, significant air pollution, and dependence on increasing energy use to fuel future economic growth. By fusing developing/developed country attributes with major global clout, China is unique: a hybrid superpower. Unlike advanced economies, China’s energy needs will continue to rise substantially going forward, increasing its influence over global energy and climate issues.

A new paper from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs examines these questions from the energy perspective, and assesses its implications regarding the evolution of energy globally and efforts to address climate change. It is authored by adjunct senior research scholar Philippe Benoit and nonresident fellow Kevin Tu.

Evaluating China’s development status is not just an academic exercise. Understanding the nature and implications of China’s unique status can help in designing energy and climate policies and in fostering an international framework that better promote sustainable growth both within China and abroad. The research paper provides insights for analysts and policymakers into the challenges presented for China and the international community in analyzing the drivers of China’s national energy policies and international implications. It articulates some of the structural and other factors likely to heavily influence China’s behavior on energy and related climate issues, with profound implications for the rest of the world.

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