Global environmental challenges
What about China?
(Updates with comments from Raymond Pierrehumbert, Knut Alfsen and Kim Carstensen)
The world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases by geographical boundaries is China. A close second is the United States. Between the two great powers, they account for 40 percent of all carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Heading into the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, the pressure was on for China to come up with a real plan for how it would scale back its record emissions.
Compared with the U.S., China was looking like it had made some strides before joining 191 other nations at the summit. Its goal of emissions cuts in the range of 40 to 45 percent is official policy, for starters. In the U.S., its goals for emission cuts are stuck at 17 percent and aren’t yet signed into law because the Senate has yet to approve them.
Earlier this week, China announced a pilot project where the government would subsidize greener cars and trucks in four Chinese cities in an effort to cut emissions.
For the weekend, we ask the question: Is China doing its fair share to combat global warming?
Dr. David Suzuki, geneticist and journalist:
China could and should do more, especially if rich, polluting countries step up their own efforts and support China’s actions and ambitions.
China has already engaged on the issue of climate change in a way that many developed countries have not.
It promised to improve the energy intensity of its economy by 20 percent in just 5 years (ending in 2010) and is on track to deliver on that pledge.
Its success comes from closing down hundreds of inefficient coal plants and funding household and industrial energy-conservation projects.
It has set renewable-energy targets and has had to adjust them upward because it met them early. Its mandated vehicle fuel-efficiency standards are stronger than voluntary targets in the EU, Japan, Canada, and the U.S.
But China is not done. It has put forward a greenhouse gas pollution target in the Copenhagen negotiations to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, also on an intensity basis.
The reason so much attention is being paid to China is that its emissions are the highest of any country.
It is largely not responsible for the global warming problem and, even today, has emissions on a per capita basis that are a small fraction of those in the industrialized world. It also has a lot less wealth and a lot more poverty than the developed world. China ranks 98th on the Human Development Index, so it’s no surprise that poverty alleviation and economic development are as much priorities as tackling global warming.
Nonetheless, China has shown itself to be a willing contributor to action on global warming. And it could no doubt do more if, as agreed to in the Bali Action Plan, developed countries step up and deliver support through financing and clean technologies.
Dr. Gidon Eshel, physics professor at Bard College:
Probably not. It’s playing the game everybody else does.
You can see why China will focus on carbon intensity, because that makes it looks the least bad.
While understandable, it will fail the single test that matters for any intervention policy, reduction of atmospheric GHG concentrations.
It therefore makes sense for the U.S. team to press China to do better.
Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago:
There are many ways to define “fairness” but a reasonable starting point is that every human is born endowed with the same basic rights.
By that criterion, per-capita carbon emissions should be the starting point for considerations of fairness. It’s not a perfect measure, for reasons I’ll go into later, but it’s a better starting point than emissions per country.
In 2006, the United States emitted 19 metric tons of CO2 per person. In China the number was only 4.6. So what is the moral basis to say that it is “fair” for China to have to reduce its emissions when each U.S. citizen is emitting four times as much?
When we get our emissions down to 5 tons per person, then we will have a clear moral basis for expecting China to do more.
Now, the atmosphere doesn’t care about fairness, it cares about total CO2, so fairness aside, it is crucial for China and India to reduce their emissions, and some way has to be found to make that attractive and feasible for them.
The best way to get the ball rolling is to reduce our own emissions, since China has already agreed not to emit more than the U.S., more or less.
To get back to the problem with per capita emissions as a target, as Peter Singer has pointed out that the problem with using raw percapita emissions is that it gives a country no incentive for population control.
But here, China is hardly the villain. Its people have lived with draconian population control policies, indeed arguably suffered under them, and this may have done more than any other single action anywhere to reduce worldwide carbon emissions.
For India, the population growth fault of a percapita target is more of an issue. And also for the United States, which is poised to add another hundred million inhabitants in the next 50 years or so.
At our rates of emission, that’s like nearly a half billion Chinese.
The final thing to note is that China has a lot of room to improve its efficiency without sacrificing economic growth. They have nearly the same percapita emissions as France, but not nearly the standard of living of France.
So, by some combination of efficiency, renewables and nuclear energy, China can become a first world nation with the same standard of living as France — and not grow its emissions at all. That’s the path they have to be helped along.
Karen Alderman Harbert, president and CEO, Institute for 21st Century Energy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
China’s announcement that it would set a voluntary goal to reduce its emissions intensity—that is, emissions per unit of GDP—45 percent from 2005 to 2020 has been hailed as a breakthrough by many observers, but we probably shouldn’t be popping the champagne corks just yet.
The first thing we have to understand is that China’s goal is no different from what they were able to manage between 1990 and 2005 and, looking ahead to 2020, it looks like it’s little or no better than “business as usual.”
One thing we can say is that under this goal, China’s emissions in 2020 will be much HIGHER, perhaps 50 percent to 90 percent higher, than they were in 2005.
That China’s goal (or India’s for that matter) is less than ambitious is hardly surprising. Led by China, developing countries have been up front in saying that their cooperation, in addition to being nonbinding, will only come with financial strings attached.
And why not? The Framework Convention directs Annex II Parties developed countries to provide financial resources to cover the “agreed full incremental costs” to developing countries of complying with various articles implementing the treaty.
I think we’ll shortly discover that getting China and other large developing countries to move beyond what they already have put on the table will come with a hefty price tag.
And while it’s significant that these countries have come forward with national targets, neither China nor any other large developing country plans on making them a legally binding commitment under a new international agreement.
An agreement that doesn’t include participation from large developing countries is unlikely to win Senate approval.
How this seemingly intractable issue is resolved will be one of the important and contentious aspects of the negotiations.
Knut Alfsen, Head Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO):
China’s pledge to reduce its carbon intensity (CO2 emission per GDP) by 40 to 45 per cent before 2020 with 2005 as a base year, is a ‘first’ when it comes to climate policy obligation for China. This is encouraging.
China has reduced its carbon intensity at an impressive rate since 1985, but it is still well above typical industrialized countries level. At the same time the per capita emissions of CO2 is less than half of a typical western level. It has been estimated that the Chinese intensity target will reduce CO2 emissions by 15-20 per cent in 2020 compared to a business as usual scenario.
This is within the range of 15 to 30 per cent that has been indicated as necessary contributions from developing countries in order to meet the 2 degree target.
The developed countries will at the same time have to reduce their emissions by 20 to 45 per cent compared to 1990 levels if we should be within reach of that target. The current pledges from the rich world is at present far from enough.
Thus, my conclusion is that China is in fact doing its fair share, but is in a position to do more. Sadly, that applies even more strongly to the industrialized countries.
Kim Carstensen, Leader of the World Wildlife Fund Global Climate Initiative :
China recently put a number on the table for its ambition to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. This is a very welcome step, because we need numbers from China in order to unlock the negotiations for an ambitious climate deal.
China insists that U.S., Europe and other developed states must bear the primary responsibility for cutting emissions, and therefore they must take the first and largest steps.
This is fair, because developed countries have the highest emissions per capita and the best capacity to deal with climate change.
Many have been suspicious about China’s number and question whether it’s high enough.
The question is good, because we know that China has an impressive ability to shift its course, and it is quite possible that China could do even more.
However, the best way to test this would be for industrialized countries to offer deeper emission cuts and higher financial commitments themselves.
If China follows increased ambitions from developed countries by putting up higher numbers, we will have the answer.
And it will then be much more likely that we are on track to a world where temperature rise is kept well below 2 degrees.
What do you think? Is China doing enough?
(Photo shows shoppers covering their noses and mouths near a passing car as they wait to cross a street at Hong Kong’s shopping Causeway Bay district July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Bobby Yip)