Kate Mackenzie What China is doing about climate change

Todd Stern, the United States’ chief climate change negotiator, science advisor John Holdren and other energy officials flew into Beijing yesterday for three days of talks. The countries together emit more than 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, But how far will these talks get, given the many points of contention between them – and that there is only six months until the crucial Copenhagen meeting?

It was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s turn late last month and while she said she was optimistic about the prospects for moving towards Copenhagen, she was “not putting any deadline on it“.

China has been clear about its demands recently: it wants a 40 per cent cut in emissions from developed countries from 1990 levels (larger than they are willing to commit to); an 0.5 to 1 per cent contribution of GDP from developed to developing countries, and sharing of clean energy intellectual property. None of these demands are welcome from the US. But what is China planning to do in return?

As we have written before, China’s stance on future greenhouse gas emissions targets is not well understood. But what it’s already planning to do is also far from well known. Brookings Institution visiting fellow Kenneth Lieberthal testifed before the Senate Foreign Relations committee last week about China’s climate change commitments, and his comments included the  following list about what China is already planning to do:

- Seeking a 20% reduction in energy intensity for all GDP during the 11th five-year plan, which covers 2006-2010.[1] According to Chinese authorities, total carbon emissions would decline by roughly a billion tons of CO2 over the course of the plan as against a “business as usual” (BAU) model, if this target were fully met. At present, progress toward the target is behind schedule, but the gap between targets and performance is closing.

- Adopting the target of having renewable fuels account for 10% of China’s total energy consumption by 2010 and 15% by 2020.[2] As part of this:

  • Establishing major programs to improve technology in solar and wind power. China has rapidly become the world’s leading producer of solar panels, although solar power’s installed generating capacity is to increase to only 300,000 kW in 2010. For wind power, tax breaks and other forms of government support are already in place as of 2008. The installed generating capacity of wind power is to increase from 1.26 million kW in 2005 to 10 million kW in the year 2010.[3]
  • Enhancing China’s hydropower generation (despite the fact that the country already has the greatest concentration of hydropower facilities in the world). The installed hydropower generating capacity is to increase from 117 million kW in 2005 to 190 million kW in 2010[4] and will provide 6.8%[5] of the country’s anticipated energy consumption in the latter year.

Taking serious measures to reduce the emissions from highly polluting power-generation facilities. Coal remains king in China, and about 70% of power still comes from coal-fired plants. Over the past five years China has built the equivalent of America’s entire coal power generation system. These plants will stay on line for another 30-50 years while 60% of U.S. coal-fired power plants will be over 50 years old by 2025. The technologies involved in generating power in these new plants are thus very important. Fortunately, China is building many of these plants to be relatively clean[6] and is investing in development and deployment of clean coal technologies.[7] Despite these measures, specific problems often result in emissions far above the level that would be anticipated from plant technology alone. This is the unintended result of economic pressures at the power plant level that lead many operators to purchase and burn low-quality coal that undermines the efficiency capabilities of the advanced technologies in their plants.[8]

- Aggressively expanding nuclear power capabilities, with a target of building nine new generators in the next two years and at least thirty over the coming decade. Nuclear is slated to provide 5% of China’s total installed power-generating capacity by 2020.[9] There have been recent suggestions that the nuclear output target has been raised from 40 GW to 70 GW by 2020.[10]

- Investing over 600 billion RMB ($88 billion) on ultra-high voltage transmission projects by 2020. The installed capacity of China’s clean energy will be increased to 579 billion kW when the smart grid is completed by 2020.[11]

China has long argued that its own economic growth should not be hindered by what is essentially bad timing, while developed countries were able to progress towards their current wealthier status without limits on emissions, and are now better able to bear the costs of reducing their emissions. We’ve written before here that China is averse to caps on its emissions levels, because the sheer rate of urbanisation there which Leiberthal outlines: nearly 200m people have shifted from rural to urban life since 1992, and at the current rates, about 15m people look likely to do the same annually for another 15 to 20 years.  He says, “Chinese quantitative obligations are, therefore, likely to focus on improvements in energy intensity per unit of GDP, perhaps bolstered by some sectoral requirements, along with targets on use of renewables.”

So what should the US do? China is willing to concede curbs on the rate of growth – and for this reason it looks likely to prefer emissions reductions that target a proportion of units of GDP. “It does not see how it can possibly actually cap emissions growth, given the ongoing urbanization and other developments noted above, and Beijing does not accept international obligations that it does not think it is capable of meeting,” he said. He recommends building trust and cooperation, but also a major clean energy partnership between the US and China – although this, he says, should be developed separately to Copenhagen efforts. 

Related stories:

In climate change talks between China and the US, nothing is simple (FT Energy Source, 02/06/09)
Climate talks: What China, India and Brazil want (FT Energy Source, 29/04/09)