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Can China revolutionise global production?

One-third of China’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2005 were due to production for export. Glen Peters sees a bright future ahead if rich nations can match rhetoric with reality and support low-carbon growth in developing countries.

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China’s impressive economic development has come at the expense of increased environmental impacts. China overtook the United States in 2007 to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, decades sooner than scientists were predicting only a few years earlier.

A significant share of China’s emissions growth is due to production for export. One-third of China’s emissions in 2005 were due to exported products, up from 16% in 1990. In the last five years, over one-half of the growth in Chinese emissions was due to products for export. More than half of these were destined for developed nations, with one-quarter destined for the US. The bulk of this growth is due to manufactured products, such as electronics and textiles.

But this large share of exported emissions need not represent a problem for the global trading system. The issue, in fact, lies with China’s less carbon-efficient production system, and primarily with its electricity generation. In other words, if all of China’s electricity generation was renewable, then Chinese products would be good for the wallet and the climate.

The importance of exports in Chinese emissions suggests that international trade could play a key role in policy discussions toward an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. The challenge is to ensure that trade can be used to encourage China’s participation in post-2012 climate policy, not to discourage it.

China’s export growth results largely from its competitive pricing and large production capacity. This competitive advantage has been used to drive down the costs of manufactured products, with demand fueled by consumption in rich nations. Using similar principles, China can drive down costs of energy-efficient or renewable technologies. This could make China a powerhouse driving the global diffusion of new products and technologies needed for a low-carbon society, both globally and within China.

Solutions to Chinese emissions growth need to come from inside and outside China. Internally, China can stop bad choices that will linger in the system for decades: the country must ensure that new installations use the latest clean technologies and push the barriers of technological feasibility. The scale of China’s development presents a golden opportunity to experiment and go where rich nations currently lack courage, such as large-scale experimentation with carbon capture and storage. Removing subsides on fossil fuels and redirecting them to non-fossil resources could increase the uptake of renewable energy. Investing in urban planning and infrastructure that moves China off a fossil-fuelled future will significantly reduce future mitigation costs. These initiatives need not increase costs, but may shift money from those with vested interests to those with the ideas and concepts needed to transform the future.

Rich countries can take the first step by replacing rhetoric with solid examples. Policies in rich nations that aggressively encourage the installation of clean technologies must be matched by a means of production. Encouraging China to focus mass production of clean products, with consummate rewards, will drive down production costs and speed global diffusion of technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines.

Industrialised countries must also shift the demands on Chinese production from conspicuous consumable items to clean technologies. Rich nations can place strict efficiency requirements on the use of consumable products, thereby forcing Chinese producers to meet those standards to have a saleable product. Typical products would include household appliances or passenger vehicles. Similar policies already exist for other environmental issues, such as the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. Increased production will stimulate innovation and drive down production costs, aiding the global diffusion of low-cost energy efficient items, both inside and outside China.

These solutions aim to offer China an incentive to increase production and trade by shifting Chinese production towards clean technologies. To continually receive these benefits, China must agree to use a share of the proceeds to implement aggressive measures at cleaning its own production systems. Global sectoral approaches are one option to monitor China’s progress, but care must be taken not to burden the Chinese economy.

If a global agreement aims to encourage China to produce clean technologies then, at least in the short term, there may be an increase in Chinese emissions. This highlights a difficulty with the current focus on mitigating territorial emissions. Emissions from the Chinese economy that benefit consumption in rich countries, particularly conspicuous consumption, should not only be seen as a problem of Chinese production, but also a problem of global consumption. Likewise, countries that produce clean technologies or can produce products with less carbon emissions than other countries should be encouraged. Aluminum produced with electricity generated by hydropower, for example, should be encouraged over the use of coal power.

Emissions targets with timetables, as in the Kyoto Protocol, serve a useful objective in measuring progress and providing goals. However, for global pollution such as greenhouse gases, targets and timetables should not serve to shift the problem from one nation or sector to another. Targets and timetables currently focus on disconnected units – national territories – and fail to recognise the increasing interconnection of the global economy. Constraints on Chinese emissions need not act as a constraint on the nation’s economy or as a constraint on the country becoming a global leader in a low-carbon future.

China has the opportunity to become the global leader in low-carbon technology development and production. The future often seems grim when recent trends in Chinese emissions are considered, but China’s growth is young and rapid enough to allow for the rapid installation of tomorrow’s technologies, which will transform society. Today’s developing countries have the best opportunities to become low-carbon leaders. Rich nations suffer from deep-sunk costs and entrenched vested interests. China has the chance to step forward and revolutionise the world in a way that few thought possible.

 

Glen Peters is senior research fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), Oslo, Norway

Homepage photo by Ian Koh

 

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

需要改变价值观

技术改进短期内带来的成本上升,归根到底需要在价值观念上的改变,尤其考虑到在中国,政策法规的执行力之弱。这对中国人是更为困难的转变和考验。

Values should be changed

Technological advantage will lead to short term costs increases. However emissions reduction eventually should be realized through a change in people's values. It is important espesially in China where policy enforencement seems wek. While for Chinese people it is more difficult and is a testing.

This comment was translated by Li Han

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

支持文章的观点

这篇文章极具建设性和全球视野。其出发点是如何建立全球低碳经济以及中国在其中可以发挥的作用,其立意符合世界和中国的利益。当务之急是为全球低碳经济作出安排。目前的气候变化谈判只能为此提供一个政策框架。这当然重要。但有了这个政策框架,并不等于就为全球低碳经济发展的路径和手段作出了安排。比如,能否对全球的清洁技术扩散制定时间表?如果可能,这个时间表应当如何通过一个世界体制保障实施?世界贸易体系如何为此作出贡献?等等。这是一篇更大的文章。
高风

Agree with the ideas in this article

This article is filled with constructive ideas from a world vision, and it starts with ways to install a global low-carbon economy and the roles China might play during the installation. The conception formed in this article accords with China's and world benefits. The first on the list is to make arrangements for the global low-carbon economy, in a way that China can play a role. And of course, the present negotiation over climate change, which is important, just offers a policy framework, which is by no means equal to making an arrangement of ways and means to the global low-carbon economy. For example, can the negotiation reach a timetable for the diffusion of global cleaning technologies? And, if the answer is yes, by what ways can the timetable be guaranteed to put into practice with a global something system? What can the world trade system do for this? etc. But these are bigger things to write. Gao Feng
(This comment was translated by Ming Li)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

老调调

中国在1979年开始就把袁隆平的杂交稻向世界各国低价转让,当时美国只以20万美元的低价就拥有了现在美国大面积种植的中国杂交稻。现在全球粮食危机让农业技术转让的呼声高起。搞清洁能源,搞风电,什么时候真正的无歧视无壁垒的技术交流、转让达成了,什么时候真正的南北通途才算建成了。而问题是,气候变化的速度已经是时不我待了......
李沫萱

what we always say

As early as 1979, China has started transfering the ownership of the hybrid-rice introduced by Mr. Yuan Longping to the other countries in the world, at a low price. At that time, the US obtained the now widely-planted Chinese hybrid-rice at only US$200,000. The current rice crisis has evoked again a global transfering of agricultural technologies. We use clean energy, and we generate electricity from winds, but these are not enough. The South-North cooperation will not be achieved genuinely as long as there are still barriers of bias regarding technological communication and transfer. The main problem is climate change does not wait for us. - Li Moxuan

This comment is translated by Xiaomei Zou