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When it comes to forestalling climate change,

gradualism is a luxury China cannot afford, writes Bill Dodson


hina stopped “crossing the river by feel- ing the stones” and took the plunge into modernization when it entered the WTO

in 2001. Te rapid development of a country hous- ing nearly 20% of humanity over the past three decades has precipitated the tipping point for cli- mate change. China officially became the factory to the world in the last decade, and it surpassed the US as the world’s largest carbon emitter in 2007. Many of these emissions were still tied to US

development. Between 7% and 14% of carbon emissions produced during China’s export boom were actually made manufacturing products for American consumers, Wen Jiajun, the China project fellow at the International Forum on Globalization in 2009, wrote in a report. Nearly one-quarter of China’s carbon emissions during these good old days could be attributed to exports, according to Wen. Now, with China gradually rebalancing its

economy from export-led factories and grand infrastructure projects to consumption, the coun- try’s energy needs are poised for another great leap. If ever there was a time for China to impress the world with its new wealth and make history instead of just repeating it, it is this decade. Unfortunately, China’s current targets and

policies for reducing and mitigating carbon diox- ide emissions are tepid at best, brinksmanship at worst. To stabilize global climate change, China must implement more ambitious plans and targets than are on its drawing boards now.

Hungry dragon

China’s energy consumption has grown at an unsustainable pace. From 1980 to 1990, total energy use increased about 60%. From 1990 to 2000 it expanded another 50%, and from 2000 to 2010 it grew by 130% to top 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of annual consumption. Beijing expects the country’s consumption to double again by 2020. Despite China’s momentum in developing

Bill Dodson is the author of “China Fast Forward: The Technologies, Green Industries and Innovations Driving the Mainland’s Future”


renewable energy sources that will make up nearly 16% of the country’s energy generation portfolio by 2020, coal will still contribute the lion’s share of overall power. In 2010, China represented more than half the world’s appetite for coal, and it is pro- jected to burn 35% more coal in 2020 than in 2010 to meet its energy needs. Overall, the use of coal and other fossil fuel in China will rise by over 40% by the end of the decade if left unchecked. Admittedly, Beijing is actively implementing

programs to boost energy efficiency and reduce its emissions intensity, or carbon put out per unit of GDP. Te government aims to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 17% during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), and by 40-45%

China Economic Review • November 2012

THE THICK OF IT: China may under-report its carbon emissions by as much as the total yearly output of Japan

from 2005 levels by 2020. Te country has plans to impose an energy cap of 4.2 billion tons of coal- equivalent by 2015, and it has drafted a climate change law that features a national emissions- trading scheme and carbon tax. However, these announcements fall far short

of what needs to be done to reverse the effects of rampant carbon emissions. Furthermore, meeting even token annual goals in energy efficiency has been problematic. In 2011, for instance, China cut its energy used per unit of GDP by only 2%, rather than the projected 3.5%.

Hot under the collar

Given the likely shortfall in limiting emissions, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technol- ogy projects that China’s growing energy require- ments will on balance contribute to an increase in global temperature of about 0.1 degrees Cel- sius by 2020. Te earth’s surface temperature has already risen by 0.8 C since the late 1800s, when the industrial revolution replaced wood with coal as the engine of globalization. Te UN Framework Convention on Climate

Change – of which China is a signatory – identi- fied a 2 C increase as the threshold beyond which climate change will become self-sustaining. Te last time the earth saw a comparable rise in tem- perature was during the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, when sea levels were six to nine meters above what they are today, inundating now-populated islands and coastal regions. Without substantive efforts on the part of all

industrialized countries to reduce carbon emis- sions, global average surface temperature will increase by about 5.5 C during this century, according to the MIT study. Stabilizing warming to a livable 1 C point

would require all industrialized countries to apply a greenhouse gas tax that would increase at 4% per year. All coal-fired power generation processes would need to implement carbon capture and storage technologies. Natural gas and electric vehi-

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