Exploring a low carbon development in rural China : the role of households

Wenling Liu Wenling

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


As the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, China is facing great pressure to reduce these emissions in order to mitigate global climate change. Developing a low carbon economy has been initiated in many countries, including China, as a means to tackle this issue. China’s actions in tackling climate changehave mainly focused so far on setting targets in its national energy strategy, and on implementing measures in the industrial sector and in urban transportation and buildings. The contribution of rural energy use to climate change has largely been neglected. In recent decades, China’s rural economy has undergone rapid development, accompanied by a substantial and profound change of rural lifestyles and a gradual transition of residential energy use patterns. This resulted in a trend towards the use of a greater variety of energy sources among rural residents.Thisrural energy transition is in particular characterized by a steady rise ofcommercial energyconsumptionand of energy intensity per capita, resulting in an increase in carbon emissions. As a result, mitigating rural CO2 emissions and promoting a rural low carbon transition arecrucial forChina’sclimate change agenda. Households are considered key actors in the rural energy transition, since reduction of CO2 emissions is bound up with changing domestic routines of energy consumption. The central objective of this research is to define the existing contribution of rural energy consumption to climate change and to explore the possibilities for low carbon transitions of rural households in China by examining the composition, formation and (potential) transformation of household energy consumption practices.

Western ecological modernization theory is used as the theoretical basis of this study. The social practice model, developed within this theory, offers an integrative model to analyze transitions towards sustainable consumption at the level of everyday life. As such, social practices of household energy use are taken as focal points. Both individual attitudes towards energy use and the structural energy-related provision systems are taken into consideration in analyzing the transformation of household energy use practices.  

Official data on rural energy use faces some major shortcomings that hinder a comprehensive evaluation of rural CO2 emissions. Thus, to understand the contribution of rural domestic energy use to national greenhouse gas emissions in China, a general evaluation on its climate impacts is conducted in chapter two, based on multiple data sources and calculating methods. It is found that the contribution of rural (residential) carbon emissions to national total emissions might be easily neglected, since only emissions from commercial energy use are taken into account in official statistics, not those from traditional biomass use. This results in an underestimation on rural carbon emissions and mitigation potentials. The estimated CO2 emissions of rural commercial energy consumption accounts for around 4% of national total emissions, but the commercial energy use is only 1/5-1/4 of rural residential energy consumption. Large emissions and mitigation potentials from traditional biomass use are usually neglected. An energy transition is taking place in rural areas, with the dominant use of conventional biomass gradually being (partly) substituted by commercial energy utilization. Despite this transition, the increase of total rural domestic energy consumption and their carbon emissions may continue for a long time when the rural economy continues its rapid development. Promoting a transformation in the energy structure and of the behaviour of rural energy users is therefore crucial to slow down and reverse this process.

Developing renewable energy is taken as a key strategy to optimize the energy structure and stimulate a low carbon transition. Public acceptance of such sustainable energy technologies is crucial for their successful introduction and penetration. The third chapter applies a socio-psychological framework to analyze rural householders’ understandings of a low carbon future by examining their attitudes towards the development of renewable energy in rural China. A case study was conducted in Shandong province. The results show that most rural householders have vague understandings of the ‘low carbon’ concept, but they are generally supportive torenewable energy development. In particular, a positive behavioural intention to pay for ‘higher cost’ of renewable energy production is observed among a large part of the respondents. This willingness to pay increases with household income and individual knowledge. It may be expected that continued development of the rural economy and society will result in improvements in rural education and income levels, which will come along with a growing environmental awareness among rural residents and further a change of their behavioural practices towards a low carbon transition.  

Energy use practices of rural households show a wide variety in China. These diverse energy use practices contribute differently to greenhouse gas emissions. A case study in north China (Shandong) was carried out to probe into their different contribution and examine the factors that influence or determine energy use behavioural practices of rural households (chapter four). The results show that space heating in north China is the largest emissions source among domestic energy use practices, which accounts for around 60% of household carbon emissions. The variety of rural energy use practices also leads to many possibilities of transition. The most obvious change may be brought along by a modernization of household lifestyles. Economic factors are one of the major drivers of such a transition. High-income groups are found to consume more energy for transportation and water heating, while low-income groups consume more energy for basic living practices such as space heating and cooking. It should be noted that a transition to modern-lifestyles tends to result in higher carbon emissions due to a larger energy consumption demand. However, a low carbon transition is also taking place to some extent within each energy use practice. For instance, natural gas is increasingly used for cooking instead of coal and traditional biomass; and renewable energy such as solar energy and biogas are replacing the use of fossil fuels for water heating and cooking. A low carbon development emphasizes both modernization and de-carbonization of domestic energy use practices, and cannot be separated from changes in the system of energy provision.  

Rural housing provision is crucial for future domestic energy use in rural China. The provision of rural housing is increasingly diversifying over the past decade, with variations in type of houses as well as actor arrangements that determine the lay-out of houses, the kind of energy sources used and thus future household energy use. Several case studies of concentrated rural housing provision are conducted in Shandong and Inner Mongolia, China to understand the factors influencing possible low carbon housing (chapter five). The major objective is to look into how decisions are being made regarding low carbon (behavioural and technological) alternatives for future rural domestic energy consumption practices. The empirical results show that providers of houses are the major decision makers with regard to the kind of materials, technologies and energy networks applied in rural housing development. Concentrated rural housing can improve both the energy efficiency of houses and the living conditions of households compared to traditional stand-alone modes of housing, which implies a relatively low carbon housing provision. Local governments, private property developers and local (energy) authorities in principle have the power to select and apply low carbon alternatives. Other energy (related) provision systems are also engaged in a transition of modernizing and de-carbonizing, including improved commercial energy supply, increased renewable electricity generation and decentralized energy provision. However, the transition can to a great extent be attributed to technological improvements within these systems. The transition to a low carbon economy would greatly benefit from strengthening other important aspects, such as improved energy-related markets, decentralized management of energy provision projects, diversified strategies aiming at different agents or actors involved, and increased participation of rural householders to alter the situation of ‘captive consumers’ of energy.

In sum, this thesis finds that with rural development and modernizing rural lifestyles in China rural residential energy use is leading to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Energy use practices of rural households in China have to be both modernized and decarbonized in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A low carbon development demands, on the one hand, improvement of environmental awareness and attitudes, which is starting to play a more important role in the energy use decision making of rural householders; on the other hand, it demands that energy-related provision systems in rural China continue to be diversified, modernized and de-carbonized, and thereby make low carbon alternatives available for rural householders.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Spaargaren, Gert, Promotor
  • Heerink, Nico, Co-promotor
Award date27 May 2013
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461735539
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2013


  • climatic change
  • china
  • environmental policy
  • carbon dioxide
  • rural environment
  • emission reduction
  • rural communities
  • agricultural households
  • households


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