Quingdao Huaweu Wind Farm

China will spend 2 trillion Yuan ($313 billion) on developing green energy and reducing carbon emissions over the next five years. Quingdao Huaweu Wind Farm (Image by: Land Rover Our Planet)

China’s emissions have risen sharply in recent years due to rapid industrialisation, fuelled chiefly by coal burning. In terms of national emissions, it has overtaken the US; its per-capita emissions are currently much lower, but rising quickly.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has recently put China’s annual emissions at 6.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. This is still much lower than 16.9 tonnes for the US (some analysts put this figure even higher), but rising quickly; indeed, Chinese emission figures have tripled since 1990.

“Due to its rapid economic development, per capita emissions in China are quickly approaching levels common in the industrialised countries of the Annex I group under the Kyoto Protocol, the report notes. “In fact, present CO2 emissions per person in China are now equal to those of Italy, higher than France, but still smaller than that of Germany”.

“If the current trends in emissions by China and the industrialised countries including the USA would continue for another seven years, China will overtake the USA by 2017 as highest per capita emitter among the 25 largest emitting countries”.

Xie Zhenhua, vice chair of the National Development and Reform Commission, said that to let emissions rise that high would be a “disaster for the world”.

Xie was speaking during a visit to the UK that explored co-operation on clean energy and climate issues; the trip also included signing a Memorandum of Understanding with UK Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne on areas for joint research.

“During the Twelfth Five-Year Plan period, the Chinese government will boost low-carbon development from ten perspectives,” notes Xie. China will promote circular economy projects, establishing 100 demonstration bases for resource comprehensive utilization, and additionally launch low carbon pilot programs in five provinces and eight cities.

China will spend 2 trillion Yuan ($313 billion) on developing green energy and reducing carbon emissions over the next five years, with a view to cutting carbon intensity (the CO2 output for each unit of GDP growth) by 16 percent compared with 2010 levels.

Whether a Chinese peak after 2020 would be able to help constrain climate change within limits often regarded as “safe” is another question. A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change showed that “if global emissions do not peak and begin to fall by 2020, keeping the global average temperature rise since pre-industrial times below 2C will be difficult”.

Is this anything new?

In the run-up to the negotiation talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, China announced that it would cut emissions of carbon relative to economic growth by 40% to 45% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.

These recent targets are less than the country achieved in the previous 15 years, note some observers concerned by China’s apparent lack of ambition. Indeed, Xie acknowledged that China achieved energy conservation gains of 47% between 1990 and 2005. But he insisted, “the lower headline figure of the new target masked the fact that it is harder to achieve because all the low-hanging fruit has already been picked”.

What does this mean for future negotiations?

China came in for heavy international criticism over its alleged intransigence at the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009, with many arguing that Beijing was determined to scupper efforts to set tough, specific targets.

China has consistently resisted emissions targets that are “internationally binding or subject to international verification”. Xie notes, however, that, over the last five years, China has a better record of meeting ambitious domestic targets than many countries with internationally binding commitments have managed.

In previous negotiation rounds, China, as a developing country, has argued that the vast majority of emissions were due to industrialisation in the developed world and that rich countries had not made significant commitments to reduce their carbon emissions. China, like many other developing countries, continues to emphasise that such emission reductions cannot come at the expense of their economic development, pointing to the historic responsibility of the industrialised West to provide further assistance in shifting developing countries onto a low-carbon growth path.  

Recognising the dangers of rising carbon intensity and keen to explore potential avenues of cooperation with the West, China has turned a corner. Will China now recognise its enormous (and growing) responsibility to cooperate with the developed countries in ratifying international agreements? China’s increasing economic development will mean it will be a key player in the future, both in terms of recognising the legitimacy of the agreement (as it races to be the largest economy in the world, no “global agreement” could exclude it), and in terms of achieving any significant emission reductions. How this plays out in Durban in December 2011 will be paramount. 

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