Low-carbon logic

Beyond international efforts to cut carbon emissions, China has its own reasons for shifting to a green economy. It’s not a question of if, but how fast, writes Pan Jiahua.

Low-carbon development in China is not just about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to combat climate change. It is also an essential strategic move for building a sustainable society, ensuring energy security and promoting environmental protection.

China lacks oil and has little natural gas, but it is rich in coal. The country’s vehicle-ownership rate is currently just 50 cars per thousand people – less than one fifteenth of the rate in the United States, and one tenth of that in Europe and Japan. Even so, China has to import half of the oil it consumes. Data from BP shows the country’s identified oil reserves are only sufficient to meet demand for 11.3 years. Natural-gas reserves will last three times as long, but still only 32.3 years, compared to 60.4 years for global reserves. China has greater quantities of coal, but at current extraction rates, these resources will last only 41 years – one third of the 122-year estimated lifespan of global reserves.

With a population of 1.3 billion, a huge economy and massive energy demand, China clearly cannot sit back and rely on world markets.

Meanwhile, China’s coal-mining industry damages groundwater systems, causes geological disasters and encounters frequent accidents, paying a high price in human lives. And the sulphur, nitrates, heavy metals, dust and solid waste associated with burning coal take a heavy environmental toll. For the sake of energy security, environmental protection and a sustainable society, China needs a rapid and radical transformation. Even without the dangers presented by climate change, low and zero-carbon development is still an urgent requirement.

China has announced that, by 2020, the carbon-intensity of its economy will fall by 40% to 45% on 2005 levels and non-fossil fuel sources will account for 15% of all primary energy consumption. It has also set goals for carbon-fixation in forests. These are all targets for low-carbon economic growth – and they are challenging and binding. The carbon-intensity target only covers carbon dioxide produced in the burning of fossil fuels, and does not affect other greenhouse-gases. Judging by current progress on the 20% energy-saving target in China’s 11th Five Year Plan (2006 to 2010), these aims will be difficult to achieve. But it is clear that in the 12th Five Year Plan, which is currently being formulated, China will include goals for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, with binding targets set for both provinces and industries in order to strengthen implementation.

The whole of Chinese society is already at work, making efforts to create low-carbon cities, communities, businesses and consumption patterns. There is, in fact, much more momentum on this matter in China than in developed countries. Growth of solar and wind power, for example, is happening much more rapidly here than in most rich nations.

But China’s low-carbon transformation needs strong support from the international community. As a developing nation, China’s energy consumption and carbon emissions are still increasing, presenting a challenge for global efforts to cut carbon dioxide output. Clearly, China’s pains to shift to a low-carbon economy will not be adequate on their own: the world needs to work together.

To a certain extent, finance is not the issue. China has money. Yes, developed nations have even more, but if those countries are unable to bring about an immediate low-carbon transformation at home, then no matter how wide they open their purses, they cannot do it in China either. Technological cooperation is more crucial it seems. Most important is that developed nations take the lead in low-carbon consumption and provide examples for others to follow. If people in the developed world can enjoy a high quality of life while producing little carbon, developing nations will be able to follow their lead, and may even do better.

China’s target for reduction of carbon-intensity is a relative target – a fall of 45%. If the Chinese economy continues to grow at 10% annually, overall greenhouse-gas emissions will still grow by 60% by 2020. Is there a conflict here with China’s commitment to a maximum global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as recognised in the Copenhagen Accord?

China’s low-carbon transformation must happen in accord with the stage and level of the country’s development. There is no precedent for what the country is attempting to do – namely, reduce carbon intensity by 40% to 45% over a fifteen-year period (2006 to 2020) that will also be a time of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. It is no easy task.

China has experienced three decades of economic reform, leading to average annual growth of 10%. It is currently in the late middle stages of industrialisation. In 2009, steel production reached 570 million tonnes and concrete production 1.65 billion tonnes – about 50% of global totals and levels which are adequate, or even excessive. China’s boom will eventually slow, and annual economic growth of 10% cease. In Germany, a mature economy, growth is stable at around 2%. As there is limited room for expansion or improvement in living standards, sustained growth such as that seen in developing nations or industrialising societies is impossible.

Moreover, China’s economic growth is starting to shift from expansion to an improvement in quality. The importance of the manufacturing industry is diminishing, while that of the services industry is increasing. This means that a similar rate of economic growth will result in a much smaller increase in energy demand. So while greenhouse-gas emissions will increase as China develops, this will not happen at a rate of 10% annually. China accepts the two-degree goal, and will naturally work with international society to achieve it.

And so China agrees with the Copenhagen Accord’s two-degree target, but not with longer term emission goals, such as a global target for 50% cuts by 2050. Why? China is cutting emissions along with the rest of the world, and hopes to see further reductions, but the aim of cutting emissions by half by 2050 lacks a basis in science and justice.

First, international emissions-reduction targets should start in the near term and work outwards. But developed nations have not set mid-term goals for 2020, and even if they had, the 2050 goal would be hard to achieve. There is no sense in talking about goals for 2050 but not for 2020. Second, there is still uncertainty surrounding the science linking the two-degree limit with a 50% cut in emissions by 2050 and more research is needed. If developed nations cut per-capita emissions by 80% from the current level of 12.6 tonnes per year, they will reach 2.5 tonnes, while developing nations fall by 20% from 2.6 to 2.1 tonnes. This is clearly unfair.

Pan Jiahua is executive director of the Center for Urban Development and Environment at the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Homepage image from Greenpeace