World leader in green tech, world beater in greenhouse gas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am

We are constantly being told how China leads the world in green technologies.

Just last week mainland media were trumpeting that China poured US$18.3 billion into green energy in the second quarter; almost a third of all the money invested globally in clean energy technologies.

This massive investment is clearly a source of considerable pride. In his million-selling book, The China Wave: the Rise of a Civilizational State, international relations professor Zhang Weiwei described companies like solar panel maker Suntech Power and electric car manufacturer BYD as 'world class'.

'China is now leading the world in wind and solar energy and in the electric car industry,' he boasts.

Unfortunately, all this investment in supposedly world-beating technologies doesn't seem to be having much of an impact where it's really needed: in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

BYD's sales of electric cars are negligible. And while generous subsidies certainly allow Chinese companies to make a lot of wind turbines and solar panels, their effectiveness is doubtful.

At the end of last year, solar panels made up just 0.2 per cent of China's installed power capacity. There are no figures for how much electricity they actually generated.

More encouragingly, wind turbines made up an impressive 4.5 per cent of installed capacity. But they only managed to turn out 1.5 per cent of its electricity. In contrast, the European Union generated 6.3 per cent of its electricity last year from wind power.

As a result, despite all the hype about clean energy investments, China's emissions of greenhouse gases have continued to balloon.

According to figures published yesterday by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China pumped out a record 9.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide last year, thanks largely to a 9.7 per cent increase in coal consumption and a 12.3 per cent increase in emissions from cement production.

As a result, China now emits more greenhouse gases than the United States and the 27 countries of the European Union combined, with Indonesia thrown in for good measure (see the first chart).

China's emissions from cement plants alone are now greater than the total greenhouse gas emissions of Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy.

Beijing has traditionally defended its high emission levels by pleading that China is a developing country. As a result, officials claim, its cumulative historical emissions are low compared with those of developed economies, which have been burning fossil fuels for centuries. And given its large population, they say China's per capita emissions are tiny.

Neither argument stands up to examination.

Adding yesterday's numbers to the historical emission data compiled by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre shows that China's cumulative greenhouse gas emissions now outweigh those of Germany and Japan combined.

The per capita defence is equally flawed. According to the Dutch report, on average each citizen of China was responsible for pumping out 7.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide last year. That's more than the typical Italian or Frenchman, and in line with the average figure for the European Union as a whole.

Clearly, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, China can no longer be excused as a developing economy. It is now on a par with the developed world.

No doubt Beijing's climate negotiators would respond by pointing out that China's per capita emissions are still much lower than America's. But at least the US is heading in the right direction. Over the past decade US per capita emissions have fallen by a fifth. China's have almost tripled.

Simply investing vast sums in clean energy technologies won't solve the problem. If Beijing really wants to limit its greenhouse gas output, it will have to reform the structure of the economy.

Adjusted for differences in purchasing power, last year China pumped out 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide for each US$1 million economic output it produced. Among the countries examined in the Dutch study, a level surpassed only by the Ukraine. In contrast, the US or South Korea each emitted around 400 tonnes, Britain 300 and France less than 200.

The only way China can hope to reduce its carbon intensity to comparable levels is to restructure its economy so it is less reliant on investment in energy-guzzling heavy industries, and more dependent on the private consumption of services.

Otherwise, although it may well be a world leader in green investment, it will certainly continue to be a world-beater in greenhouse gas emissions.