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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Leonardo DiCaprio: China Could Be a Climate ‘Hero'

By Mary Mazzoni

Actor and longtime environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio is burning up the headlines this year. Film-lovers applauded as he received his long-awaited Best Actor Academy Award for his role in "The Revenant." And environmentalists cheered when he used his Oscars acceptance speech to call on world leaders to combat climate change.

DiCaprio continued his calls for climate action during a trip to Beijing this week to promote "The Revenant," and praised China's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At a press conference in the Chinese capital, DiCaprio said: “As we all know, the United States and China are the two biggest contributors, and I think that China has made radical movements forward as far as alternative energy and ways to be sustainable,” the U.N. Environment Program's Climate Action blog reports.

The actor who first captured America's hearts in "Titanic" and evolved into a critically-acclaimed powerhouse through films like "The Departed," "Django Unchained" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" added: "I really think that China can be the hero of the environmental movement; they can be the hero of the climate change movement."

China is the world's leading greenhouse gas emitter, but the country of nearly 1.5 billion people is taking serious strides to change up its energy mix. Chinese President Xi Jinping shocked the sustainability set in 2014 when he announced a partnership with the U.S. government to help both countries cut emissions. (The U.S. is the world's No. 2 greenhouse gas emitter and surpasses China in per-capita emissions.)

Through the agreement, China committed to reach peak carbon by 2030, with emissions declining after that date. Xi Jinping added that renewable energy sources such as solar and wind would constitute 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

And these aren't just empty words. China already started a rapid shift to renewables before entering into its agreement with the U.S. -- growing its installed solar capacity 20-fold between 2009 and 2013 -- and the pace only increased from there. The Chinese government originally planned to install 17.8 GW of new solar capacity last year. But it blew past its target by October and increased it by 30 percent.

DiCaprio called out this shift to renewables specifically, saying it's a big part of why China is on the cutting edge: "They have an opportunity to change the world, and I have all the confidence in the world that that is their intention."

The country's shift toward renewables is, of course, driven by more than a desire to curb climate change. China's cities face a deadly air pollution crisis that kills more than 4,000 people every day. The crisis has spurred some good-natured silliness, such as the unveiling of couture smog masks at China Fashion Week and a Zhangjiagang City restaurant charging for clean air. But it's also the source of serious and consistent backlash from civil society, including lawsuits from citizens, and rightfully so.

More clean-energy adoption, along with a reduced dependence on coal, can go a long way in helping the heavily industrialized nation curb pollution. The government also adopted new urbanization guidelines this year to encourage walking and public transit, as well as historical and natural-resource preservation, in its booming cities and improve quality of life for residents.

But that's not say China doesn't take climate action seriously. The government proved it's ready to step up -- and put its money where its mouth is -- at the U.N. climate talks in Paris last year. Heather Coleman, who manages Oxfam America’s climate policy work, told TriplePundit all about it:

"One of the biggest issues we used to have was that China would be unwilling to step up as one of the largest economies in the world," Coleman told us in December. "In the last year, they've gone leaps and bounds. We've had incredible breakthroughs with China. In the U.S. bilateral agreement, they've moved forward on their mitigation commitments and where they're headed. They're taking those issues very seriously now.

"They recognize that they have a greater role to play globally. They're now putting real money on the table: They committed $3.1 billion to vulnerable countries ... They just made a massive commitment to African nations. These aren't small potatoes."

In addition to monetary commitments for developing nations, China pledged to reduce its own carbon intensity by 60 to 65 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. It also committed to modernize its coal power plants by 2020 so as to cut their pollutant emissions by 60 percent. The move would save around 100 million tons of raw coal and prevent the discharge of about 180 million tons of CO2 each year, according to an official communiqué quoted by the New China Press Agency.

So, will China emerge as a climate action hero? Only time will tell. The country is already feeling the growing pains. Due to slowing growth, it issued layoffs to around 15 percent of its coal and steel workers this week -- impacting 1.8 million people, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Nebraska. Such an enormous hammer is undoubtedly devastating for citizens, but the onset of renewable energy will mean new jobs -- likely in safer and less toxic working environments. And the numbers show renewables are poised to fill the gap.

China employs 3.4 million people in the renewable energy sector, making it the largest green-energy employer in the world, according to the most recent data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (PDF). More than 1.5 million Chinese citizens have jobs in the solar photovoltaic sector alone, and these numbers continued to rise in 2014. Last year's employment numbers from IRENA are expected this spring, but with the country's booming renewable capacity, we only expect bigger gains.

Leo has certainly proved a reliable trend-spotter in the past. (The man bun? Come on, he totally saw that coming.)  But whether he's right or wrong about China's superpower status, it's safe to say the world should be watching as the country evolves from an environmental bogeyman to a post-COP21 leader.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Karen Borter 2) Flickr/IBM Research

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni