Environment

Debate warms up

Beijing signals it will curb carbon emissions

Smoke rises from chimneys and facilities of steel plants on a hazy day in Benxi

China’s contribution to the issue

Five years ago China annoyed the world’s climate experts by sending a second tier official from the NDRC, the economic planning body, to negotiate with global leaders at the climate change talks in Copenhagen. While Barack Obama sat through the night with 50-odd other leaders trying to salvage a climate deal, China’s then Premier Wen Jiabao, was conspicuously absent.

Instead, a certain Xie Zhenhua sat opposite the US president, blocking almost every suggestion and at times even wagging his finger at him. When the final deal was agreed – Premier Wen Jiabao did turn up for the signing – it was virtually meaningless, disappointing developed and developing nations alike.

One country which walked away happier, of course, was China, because the Copenhagen meeting failed to reach any decision on binding curbs on emissions. Today, perhaps as a result of rising anger at pollution at home, China seems willing to do more, even if the tone is still a mite on the defensive side.

At the UN Climate Change Summit in New York last week vice-premier Zhang Gaoli told delegates that his country was committed to “tackling this grave challenge” but added that it was “not doing this at others’ request but on our own initiative”.

“We will announce post-2020 actions on climate change as soon as we can, which will bring about marked progress in reducing carbon intensity, increasing the share of non-fossil fuels and raising the forest stock,” Xinhua reported him as saying. Zhang also reiterated Chinese plans to reduce its emissions of carbon per unit of GDP by 45% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

China’s position on carbon emissions – the main driver of climate change – has always been that it should be allowed more leeway because it has a huge population and began industrialising much later than Western nations.

Even today Beijing will not commit to giving a date for “peak carbon” saying only that it hopes to get over the hump and onto a downward trend as “early as possible”.

But as a recent report shows, the argument that China only emits much more carbon than other countries because it has so many people is getting weaker. Crucially, its per capita emissions are catching up too.

Published ahead of the talks in New York, the Global Carbon Report indicates that China’s emissions now account for 28% of the world total and are greater than the US and the EU’s combined.

Furthermore, the 60 international scientists who compiled the study say that Chinese emissions will rise significantly by 2019, when they will be equal to the output of the US, the EU and India together.

In another key datapoint, the study also says that China’s emissions have been rising so fast that they now exceed Europe’s on a per capita basis – 7.2 tonnes per person to 6.8 tonnes per head respectively.

Of course Europe and the US (which has emissions of 16.4 tonnes per person) “export” a lot of their emissions by buying goods produced in China. Even so, the report estimates that these goods account for about 16% of the mainland’s emissions, leaving China close to European levels in a like-for-like comparison.

The Chinese media largely ignored the report, with only Xinhua picking up on it. It accused “Western researchers” of adopting a “selective attitude” to carbon emissions data, and added Western countries were trying to “force China to accept excessive responsibilities and obligations when it came to reductions”.

“Chinese also have the right to pursue a higher living standard. When Western countries criticise China’s carbon emissions they are ignoring our stage of development. By asking us to take on discriminatory responsibility for the reduction of carbon emission they are trying to hold back the development of China,” it said.

Fortunately, the environmental statistics out of China aren’t all bad. The Financial Times reported this week that the country set a new record in the third quarter for spending on solar power ($12 billion versus $8.8 billion in Europe). It added that China’s solar installations are set to reach a generating capacity of 14 gigawatts this year, which the FT says is almost a third of the world’s total.


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