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Assessing China’s efforts on climate change

Article that appeared in The Dominion Post, 8 February 2011

A lot is said about China’s response to climate change.

China is often portrayed as leading action on climate change as spokesperson for developing countries while developed countries like Australia and the US dither. Its low per capita emissions are contrasted with high emissions per person in those same countries and in New Zealand.

Its investment of many billions of dollars in renewable energy is cited as evidence that China is pulling its weight. Indeed, both the US and Europe are concerned that China’s investment in solar and wind power will eventually see that country become the international leader in such technology (Reuters, 23 September 2010 for the US; Climate Spectator, 5 October 2010 for Europe).

We have also been told that while developed countries have failed to put a price on carbon, China is planning to start an emissions trading scheme (Point Carbon, 2 August 2010). Headlines have also talked about the Asian giant shutting coal-powered factories to cut pollution (see New York Times, 9 August 2010).

China’s government has set a 2020 target of cutting carbon emissions per unit of GDP to 40-45% from 2005 levels. Beijing’s view is that it is doing more than enough.

This image is misleading. In truth, China’s emissions are growing quickly and the country will continue to burn coal as fast as it can dig it out of the ground or import it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says China is now the world’s biggest consumer of energy, having passed the US in 2009 (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2010). It had already passed the US the previous year to become the world’s biggest carbon emitter, and now pumps out 7.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually from oil and coal (Reuters, 10 June 2010). This is just under a quarter of the global total of a little over 31 billion tonnes.

China’s emissions have risen sharply in recent years as the country has built more coal-fired plants to drive its extraordinary economic growth. The IEA has suggested that if the UN’s target of holding the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees C is to be achieved, China’s emissions should peak at 8.4 billion tonnes per year by 2020. However, China looked set to hit this limit before the end of 2010 (Reuters, 1 October 2010). The Chinese Academy of Sciences suggests that even with the efficiency gains from China’s 2020 emission reduction target, economic growth will push its emissions to between 9.6 and 10.1 billion tonnes per year by 2020, compared with 5.2 billion tonnes in 2005.

Despite the country’s advances with renewable energy, the lion’s share of its supplies will continue to come from coal, which will still make up 64% of the mix in 2015 (Reuters, 1 October 2010). Total coal output in China was 3.2 billion tonnes in 2010, but this is expected to rise by 60% to over 5 billion tonnes by 2020 (Reuters, 12 January 2011). China is also a coal importer, with imports last year expected to reach 150 million tonnes (see New York Times, 22 November 2010).

The bottom line – China’s continued use of coal and its booming economy will make it nearly impossible for the UN to meet its 2 degree target.

But what about all those coal-burning factories that were being closed? A Reuters investigation last year found some plants had already been shut or the companies involved were planning new, bigger replacements – still burning coal (11 August).

As for the emissions trading scheme China is planning, this is simply down for investigation during the new Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and precious few details are available about how it would work (see Reuters, 22 July 2010).

The picture does not become any more encouraging when one considers how hard it is for China to meet even the modest targets it sets itself. China’s top climate change official, Xie Zhenhua, told media last year that the easiest problems had already been dealt with and achieving the intensity-based 2020 emission reduction target would “need considerable effort” (Reuters, 30 September 2010).

China is also committed to asserting what it sees as its right to increase its emissions. A leading Chinese climate change negotiator, Yu Qingtai, said late last year that the country’s first priority was its national interest and economic growth (New York Times, 2 September 2010).

To quote Yu: “We cannot blindly accept that protecting the climate is humanity’s common interest – national interests should come first… we have the right to pursue a better life.”

China has huge environmental problems that dwarf climate change – air and water pollution. It has to tackle these and also satisfy the needs of an increasingly affluent and demanding populace. In doing this, reliable projections show it will continue to burn fossil fuels until its emissions reach nearly a third of the global total. Its renewable energy efforts will not redress the balance.

(NB the text is as submitted to The Dominion Post and may differ slightly from the published version)

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