Kate Mackenzie China and India, the CO2 culprits of 2009

A new report shows just how important greenhouse gas emissions from China and India are in the worldwide context.

The two countries alone managed to offset the developed world’s recession-induced fall in carbon dioxide emissions last year.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), a national policy institute, estimates that total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement in the OECD and Russia collectively fell by 7 per cent last year.  China and India’s emissions rose by 9 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively.

The result was that total world emissions growth was flat between 2008 and 2009, PBL says.

The agency says it is the first time since 1992 that CO2 emissions haven’t increased. Recessions in the mid-1970s and early 1980s also led to brief periods of flattening in emissions growth.

So did other developing/emerging economies also see emissions growth last year?

Not so much. In fact they were broadly unchanged, according to PBL:

The divergence between China and India and the rest of the developing world, could have implications for the countries in global climate talks; at Copenhagen there were signs of a rupture between China in particular, and some of the smaller island states.

But China and India’s critical role in the world’s total emissions is well-known, and the two are at pains to point out that their populations do not enjoy the same standard of living as those in richer countries, whose emissions no longer rise quickly even in growth years, thanks to their post-industrial economies.  Not to mention that the China and India between them hold about a third of the world’s population.

And it’s not that China and India aren’t making efforts to reduce their emissions. China’s plans to reduce its energy intensity and carbon intensity per unit of GDP have won some praise – and some criticism. The PBL report notes that China’s emissions have more than doubled since 2000. The country is failing to meet its current energy intensity targets. And despite promises from Premier Wen Jiabao of an ‘iron fist’ to meet the 2010 targets, no amount of hand-wringing, admonishments or declarations, will guarantee success of the energy-intensity goals if the measures to enforce them are dud in the first place, as some experts have suggested.

Or if they are undermined by contradictory measures: as we wrote here last month, the economic stimulus package introduced in 2008 and 2009 looks likely to have increased energy – and carbon – intensity.

Structural changes are another problem; a New York Times story points out that while China is surpassing some developed countries on efficiency measures for coal-fired power plants, and its smaller car fleet, this might not be enough when compared to the population’s growing expectations of air-conditioned workplaces and shopping malls.

Meanwhile in India, which has much lower emissions per capita than China, the government has made the politically difficult step to abolish fuel subsidies. The finance minister, Pranab, says there is ‘no question’ of rolling back the decision.

But subsidies are highly politically sensitive, and widespread strikes today, supported by the opposition, could test the government’s resolve.

Related links:

China’s energy intensity targets, debunked - FT Energy Source
China’s contradictory energy measures - FT Energy Source