China and carbon emissions

The declared war against global warming by governments, organizations and environmentalists had no credibility when both the United States, under George W. Bush, and China, the two biggest carbon emitters, were not playing along. But the election of Barack Obama brought the United States into the forefront of global warming pronouncements; China remained enough of a question mark to cool down any warming rhetoric.

On the road to Copenhagen to replace the Kyoto Protocol next December, a surprise awaited both advocates and opponents of carbon regulations and legislations at the United Nations summit on climate change in New York in September 2009. In what was labeled by some news media as the first ever official statement by top Chinese leadership, President Hu Jintao spoke about the "international responsibility on climate change" and China's strategy on carbon reduction. There was talk in the media, eventually proven to be wishful thinking, about China's "advanced status" on carbon emission reduction. Right after Hu's speech some even gushed about China being a pioneer in the fight against global warming.

Was China changing its previous attitude, clearly sacrificing part of its future economic growth? Or was a more sinister motive at play? Did that country recognize that carbon legislation to "save the planet" would lessen American power and economic prowess to a much larger degree than it would do to China?

A month earlier, on August 24, Xie Zhenghua, the deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), took a much more recalcitrant position on climate change measures. 

First, he declared that China fully recognizes the importance and urgency of the severe challenge brought on by global climate change and proclaimed that it should be controlled by effective international cooperation and effort. The developed countries should reduce greenhouse gas emission up to their promised level; total greenhouse gas emission should be reduced by 40 percent of the 1990 level by 2020.

Second, developed countries should keep their promises of providing financial support and technology to developing countries (i.e., China) and they should take real action.

Third, the developing countries can take proper steps to slow down carbon emissions according to their national situations, backed by the funding and technology from the developed countries. China will follow the Kyoto Protocol, "undertake its international responsibility based on its practical capability during the economic developing period, and enforce national policy and action to contribute to the protection of global climate."

In his New York speech President Hu said that China has developed and has been implementing the "National Climate Change Program (NCCP)" since 2005. He said that by "reducing" energy consumption between 2005 and 2010, China saved 620 million tons of standard coal, equivalent to 1.5 billion tons of carbon emissions reduction.

However, he did not mention any more of China's "heroic" carbon emission reduction activities listed in the NCCP, issued by the State Council in May 2007.

The NCCP states that "in the 15 years from 1991 to 2005, China had saved 800 million tons of standard coal through economic restructuring and energy efficiency improvement, which was equivalent to about 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions." Hu's math is quite creative. During that period, coal consumption in China alone jumped from 1100 million tons to 2400 million tons. Crude oil consumption jumped from 2.5 to 6.8 million barrels per day, natural gas increased from 500 bcf per year to 1700 bcf per year.

NCCP uses other statistics. "According to expert estimates, from 1980 to 2005, China's forestation activities accounted for net absorption of about 3.06 billion tons of carbon dioxide; a net total of 1.62 billion tons carbon dioxide absorption through forest management; reduction of 430 million tons carbon dioxide emissions from avoiding deforestation "(italics ours).

Finally, to boot: "China had more than 300 million fewer births by 2005 through population control, which is equivalent to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by about 1.3 billion tons in 2005 alone."

These numbers create an interesting conundrum. Cutting through the rhetoric, China and Hu are spinning their statistics to claim that emissions currently are down from what they would have been had they not taken action 10 years ago. In reality, however, China's emissions are today a lot higher than 10 years ago.  Others can learn from the Chinese in the way to present statistics and results ‘creatively'.

In his UN speech, Hu emphasized the previous Chinese position that developed countries should complete the emission reduction mandate according to the Kyoto Protocol, and provide developing countries with financial and technical support to adapt to climate change. He appealed to the international community to adhere to the "United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change," and the "Kyoto Protocol" requirements, adhere to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and adhere to the "Bali road map" at the Copenhagen Assembly.

Hu listed four strategies for China to greatly reduce carbon emissions:

Strategy 1 - improve energy efficiency so the total carbon emissions in 2020 will be much lower than those of 2005

Strategy 2 - massively develop renewable energy and nuclear energy; try to make the non-fossil energy 15 percent of the overall energy consumption by 2020

Strategy 3 - increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares by 2020 using 2005 as baseline

Strategy 4 - greatly develop green economy and low carbon economy and actively use climate friendly technology.

President Hu has a potential good entry point for Strategy 1, China has plenty of room for energy efficiency improvement -- although China did a good job in improving energy efficiency between 1981 and 2001, it has worsened in recent years. China's energy intensity (Btu per unit of GDP) has been increasing since 2002, according to EIA (Energy Information Agency) data.

China's total energy consumption in 2006 was 73.8 quadrillion Btu, of which the non-fossil energy was 7.06 percent of the total energy consumption, including 6 percent of hydroelectric power, 1 percent of nuclear power, and 0.06 percent of other renewable energy. The EIA predicts that China's total energy consumption will reach 107.3 quadrillion Btu in 2020. Nuclear power capacity is slated to increase to 1400 or 1500 gigawatts (GW), from 7 GW in 2006. China also plans to increase hydroelectric power to 300 GW by 2020, from 129 GW in 2006. These two may help China reach the 15 percent of non-fossil energy goal.

For Strategies 3 and 4, China had destroyed most of its forests during political movements such as Steel Smelting and the Cultural Revolution, and has been heavily polluting land and water bodies over the 30 years of economic development. Any improvement would be noticed.          

But the excitement from New York barely subsided when China's top climate representative, Yu Qingtai walked out of a meeting in Bangkok on October 6 over the Kyoto Protocol after insisting that it is "unfair to expect all countries to play a role in combating global warming."

Any climate change measures according to Yu should consider the fact that "developed countries are responsible for centuries of pollution and that China's per capita emissions are only a third of those in rich countries" even though China is now the world's largest carbon emitter. He went on to say that poor countries "are the victims of climate change and rich countries are largely responsible for the problem."

It is clear that China is not intending to be as popular as President Hu was in New York during the upcoming Copenhagen Summit.  

Economides and Xie are authors of:  "Energy: China's Choke Point" (Energy Tribune Publishing) released on October 17 and available here.
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