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China’s carbon intensity struggles

New estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) illustrate how China has been struggling to cut its carbon intensity in the past three years.

Carbon intensity in tonnes CO2/ million US$2011 (MER)


Last week, the agency noted that China had reduced its carbon intensity — the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) — by 15% since 2005. That put in context the news that China’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 720 million tonnes, or over 9%, to hit 8.4 gigatonnes last year, over one-quarter of the world’s 31.6-gigatonne total. If China hadn’t made great efforts to decarbonize its economy, it could have been worse, said Fatih Birol, the IEA chief economist.

But the IEA’s estimates show that almost all of that welcome untangling of CO2 emissions from GDP growth came in 2005–08. In the last three years, China has not managed to reduce its carbon intensity much at all. China has set itself the target of cutting carbon intensity 40–45% by 2020 — which it may not manage, judging by this trend. (Its twelfth Five-Year Plan includes an intermediate target to reduce carbon intensity 17% below 2010 levels by 2015).

Although the IEA estimates should be viewed with caution, as statistics on carbon emissions and GDP numbers are notoriously uncertain, Chinese officials have already acknowledged the problem. At the National People’s Congress in March, Zhang Ping, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, admitted that “last year wasn’t good enough to reach emission-cut targets.” (Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

China has made huge efforts to close down inefficient factories and power plants, and last week announced that it would spend CN¥170 billion (US$27 billion) on energy conservation and emission reductions, but “people recognize that it is becoming more and more difficult to reduce emissions,” says Wee Kean Fong, who works for the World Resources Institute’s greenhouse-gas reduction programme in Beijing.

Knut Alfsen, head of research at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, says that China’s enormous capital investments in infrastructure projects, together with its rapidly growing car and airplane fleets, may also be countering the gains made by cleaning up manufacturing. “The outcome of all of this is that China’s intensity targets (both energy and CO2) are not going to be realized under a business-as-usual scenario,” he adds.

The country is trying to use market mechanisms to cut down on emissions. It is now developing seven experimental carbon-trading schemes (for details, see ‘Sweetening the dragon’s breath’ in Nature Climate Change), with provinces and municipal cities given rigorous carbon-intensity targets to hit by 2015. The plans kick in from 2013: whether they will work — and whether it will be possible to even measure success at the level of a city — remains to be seen.

For a comparison of China’s carbon intensity with other countries, see the IEA’s figures (up to 2009) here.

This story was corrected on 2 July. The original version mis-spelled the name of Wee Kean Fong.


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