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China not on board with CO2 - why a 16% cut means rising emissions

By Martin Leggett - 28 Feb 2011 18:2:0 GMT
China not on board with CO2 - why a 16% cut means rising emissions

The Chinese government has made more promising noises on their intent to continue to reduce their economy's carbon intensity, Reuters has reported on Sunday. The pledge to cut emissions intensity of economic growth, by 16-17%, over the next 5 years, was made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in an online question-and-answer session. It has been taken by many as a sign of good progress in international efforts to bring emissions down – and so reduce the prospects for accelerating global warming over the coming century.

Whilst this pledge is part of a 20-year plan to reduce carbon intensity by 40-45% by 2020, relative to 2005, reducing the intensity of emissions is not the same as reducing total emissions. Intensity is measured per unit GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and while China continues to grow, and grow fast, such a cut is unlikely to curtail China's total emission output.

With economic growth in China regularly hitting a 10% annual rate over the last decade, the new economic powerhouse of the world will likely post a fourfold leap in its economy over the same period. Put that quadrupling of GDP together with a 45% cut in emissions 'intensity', and at best (or worst), China's total emissions in 2020 could be double those of 2005.

China has already surpassed the US as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for over 20% of gases pumped out in 2007. So what happens in China matters deeply for the prospects of the world getting onto a less self-destructive emissions path

Of course the Chinese must be given huge credit for the big cuts in carbon intensity already achieved – with an apparent 20% reduction in energy used per unit of GDP, also announced by Premier Wen, for 2006-2010. That compares favorably with the 17% reduction in carbon intensity that the US saw over a much longer period, from 1990 to 2000.

But it does beg the question of whether breakneck economic growth is compatible with stabilizing emissions; or whether it is in fact helping to put the 'pedal to the metal', as the world hurtles towards irreversible climate change. And that question must be asked as much of consumer society in the West, whose material consumption has driven much of that growth, as of those in China who seek to emulate it.