Sizing up China's Climate Change Efforts

Editor's Note: Today we welcome Pavithra Sankaran to the writing team. Pavithra is from India, but currently resides in the UK - and has a broad range of experience in science, literature, TV journalism and more. Pavithra gets off to a great start today, giving us some insights into the nation that concerns the west more than any other.

Bali is now being hailed as a victory, with protests and demands by developing economies China and India getting drowned out in the celebratory reports. Among other demands, China has asked that richer nations provide clean energy technologies to developing countries. Yu Qingtai, China's climate change ambassador, said:

They either view this as a gesture of charity or generosity, not as a moral or political obligation. They always try to shift the focus to the market, ignoring the fact that for developing countries we know the technologies are out there but these are the most expensive technologies and we cannot afford them. - Reuters

The Climate Change Performance Index ranked China near the bottom with it contributing to 18.8% of the world's CO2 emissions, but China claims it is making progress. A few years ago, the country had the foresight to hire "cradle-to-cradle" architects William McDonough and Micheal Braungart to design environmentally sound cities which will, among other things, harness solar energy. But are all the efforts adding up and making a dent? A round-up:

  1. Investment into renewable energy: In 2005, China brought in a law to promote renewable energy. The goal is to generate 5 gigawatts through renewable sources by 2010, moving up to 30 gigawatts by 2020. Biomass power plants replacing coal-fired ones are a big part of this effort. A report from Worldwatch Institute earlier this year said China could even exceed its target of obtaining 15% of its energy from renewables.
  2. Reduction in consumption: The Chinese government has a Five-Year-Plan to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20% by 2010. But the past year, the country's 4% reduction target was not met even by half.
  3. Recycling: Although not directly related to emissions, recycling is a large part of the bigger 'greening' picture. China's Green Beat reported last month on the massive individual-driven recycling industry in Beijing. A few months ago, the world's largest plastics recycling plant opened in the capital. But given the country's ignominious new status as the world's largest municipal solid waste generator, these efforts need a matching scaling-up to a laudable cradle-to-cradle vision.
  4. Coal power shutdowns: More than three-quarters of China's power comes from coal -- the prime source for the country's CO2 emissions. This week, there was an apparent effort to change this -- 13 coal-fired power units, generating 2.44 gigawatts, have been asked to shut down, and their approvals revoked. This not to say that coal-power itself is facing a clampdown -- only smaller units that pollute disproportionately have been targeted. Larger power plants that generate more energy and discharge fewer pollutants are still being encouraged.
  5. Emission standards: In per capita terms, China produces far lower emissions than most of the developed world. But further reductions are clearly necessary. Now it is considering an automobile emission tax which will fund development of cleaner technologies. Also, a new emissions standard, equivalent to Euro 4, will be implemented in early 2008. All these will contribute to lower greenhouse gas outputs, no doubt, but the biggest boost to emission cuts in China will come from a massive implementation of the Clean Development Mechanism announced in November. More than 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2 will be kept out of the atmosphere when the 885 qualifying projects get underway.
In Bali, China began with several objections to demands that it limit future emissions of greenhouse gases, but on the final day, made some concessions. More than 700 million Chinese people live on less than $2 a day, and do not contribute anything significant to their country's emissions. But as the booming economy's effect trickles down, energy consumption will go up among China's slowly improving poor. The rest of the world cannot deny them the right to live a better life, or consume more when each Chinese person puts out less than a sixth of the CO2 the average American does.

Most of the emissions China is blamed for come from industries manufacturing goods eagerly lapped up by richer nations. Without a means of holding consumers rather than producers responsible, it will be hard for countries like China to feel motivated to do more.

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  • Posted on Dec. 18, 2007. Listed in:

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