Climate change

Beijing's emissions talk is just greenwashing on an epic scale

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am

Over the last couple of years Beijing has made strenuous efforts to burnish China's green credentials.

In late 2009 the State Council pledged to cut China's carbon intensity - the quantity of greenhouse gases the country emits for every yuan of economic output - to 40 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020.

This year, the new five-year plan committed China to cutting energy intensity - and, by extension, carbon intensity - by 16 per cent by 2015.

Meanwhile, China has been pouring hundreds of billions of yuan a year - more than twice as much as any other country - into developing renewable energy sources, with lavish government subsidies offered to producers of solar and wind-generated power.

Environmental campaigners in the West have greeted this apparent change of heart by the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter with unbridled enthusiasm, contrasting China's clean energy drive with their own governments' relatively half-hearted efforts to develop green technologies.

As a result, new estimates of China's greenhouse gas emissions published this week will have come as a nasty shock to environmental activists everywhere.

According to BP's respected Statistical Review of World Energy, China's emissions from burning fossil fuels last year totalled a massive 8.3 billion tonnes.

At that level, China isn't just the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, it's a bigger emitter than the United States, Japan and Germany put together - with Norway thrown in for good measure.

Even more ominously, if BP's figures are accurate, China's emissions rose 10.4 per cent last year. At that rate, the country's greenhouse gas emissions were growing faster than its economic output, which means China's carbon intensity is rising, not falling.

This news is obviously disappointing, but it really shouldn't be too surprising.

As the first chart above shows, the economic reforms of the 1990s led to huge reductions in China's carbon intensity as inefficient old heavy industries diminished in importance, to be superseded by light manufacturing.

But cuts have proved harder to sustain over the last ten years, as China has shifted more and more towards a highly energy-intensive, investment-driven growth model, powered overwhelmingly by coal.

As a result, China today is by far the most carbon intensive of the world's major economies. As the second chart shows, last year China pumped out twice as much carbon dioxide for each unit of gross domestic product as Korea, and nine times as much as France.

Apologists cite a range of arguments to excuse this level of emissions. They say that as a developing economy, China's per capita emissions are low by international standards. They argue that China's greenhouse gas output is artificially inflated because developed economies have outsourced their manufacturing, and hence their emissions, to Chinese factories. And they claim that international comparisons of energy intensity at market exchange rates fail to reflect the yuan's domestic purchasing power.

None of these excuses is convincing. China may be a developing economy, but its greenhouse gas emissions per head are higher than France's, and more than double Brazil's.

Similarly, China may have a powerful export industry, but so does Korea, and China's energy intensity is double Korea's.

And even if you adjust the figures for differences in purchasing power, the picture does not change by much. China is still the most energy intensive of the world's major economies, emitting twice as much greenhouse gas per unit of output as, say, Indonesia or Australia.

Nor, on examination, do China's efforts to reduce its carbon intensity look so impressive. True, the country is investing heavily in renewable energy. But it is investing even more heavily in fossil fuels. As a result, the proportion of renewable energy sources in China's power mix is not expected to rise at all over the coming years.

If energy production is getting no greener, neither is consumption. Chinese businesses could make huge cuts in their carbon intensity by improving energy efficiency. But with power prices kept artificially low by the government, they have no incentive to do so. The investment would never pay off.

As a result, it looks highly unlikely that China will meet its pledges on cutting carbon intensity, at least on its current trajectory. All that talk of reductions is beginning to sound like nothing more than greenwashing on an epic scale.