Pushing China to peak emissions early could be bad for climate

Forcing an emissions peak in China too soon could damage global efforts to tackle climate change, says climate economist Guan Dabo

Pushing China to peak its greenhouse-gas emissions too soon could damage global efforts to tackle climate change by driving industry to less efficient countries, a Chinese climate economist has argued.

Guan Dabo of the UK’s University of East Anglia told chinadialogue that China’s experience serving as the factory of the world for two decades had meant “many mistakes and many gains”, which would be crucial for tackling rising emissions.

“If any other country, say India, becomes China the second, then it will take maybe another 20 years to learn what China has already achieved,” said Guan, who has published a seven-year study of Chinese emissions patterns in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“I would say as long as emissions growth is slowing down, that is fine, rather than asking China to peak – because we want to end [carbon] leakage to other countries.”

However, Guan, who is professor in climate change and international development at UEA, argued that an absolute cap on Chinese emissions would be necessary to get the country’s economy onto a more sustainable footing. He said he was “optimistic” about progress on this front at the UN climate-change conference in Paris next year, highlighting the possibility that China’s wealthiest places including Beijing and Shanghai would commit to regional caps.

The country’s ongoing experiment in emissions trading, which involves preliminary emissions caps for seven regions, is likely to pave the way towards a system of absolute targets, he added.

Guan’s research indicates that China’s current climate-change goals, which focus on intensity of emissions (carbon dioxide produced per unit of GDP) are failing to drive effective mitigation in the context of surging, heavy-industry led economic growth. 

This is because the country’s boom has boosted emissions-intensive activities like mining, metal smelting and coal-fired power generation, negating even impressive carbon-efficiency gains made during the same period, he argues. Inner Mongolia, for example, achieved a 159% efficiency improvement between 2002 and 2009. But a 14-fold jump in cement production and metal smelting left it with a net efficiency gain of just 18%.

On a national level, China’s carbon intensity fell by 5% in the first half of 2014, according to official figures. But Guan said China had locked itself into an emissions-intensive investment cycle and progress could prove to be temporary in the absence of more fundamental restructuring of the economy.

The country has been building more airports, high-speed rail tracks and expressways than the market can absorb, he said, pointing out that China now has 90% of the world’s toll roads. But despite this excess capacity, investment in heavy industry continues: “It’s the wrong signal to the domestic market – we need more cement, we need more steel. So there will be more cement and steel factories built.”