China's carbon pollution could match US on per capita basis by 2017

China emits twice the carbon dioxide of US just three years after it overtook America as planet's worst greenhouse polluter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 3:43am

Two news items about the environment that have emerged in the past few weeks paint a worrying picture as Beijing scrambles to boost infrastructure spending and stimulate the mainland's slowing economy.

The Environmental Protection Law, the most important green legislation in the country, is undergoing its first overhaul since 1989.

The long-anticipated move has been hailed as a step in the right direction, rekindling hope that authorities may start tackling the loopholes and lax enforcement blamed for massive environmental damage.

The other story to grab headlines, about China's poor energy efficiency, revealed the flip side of the nation's vaunted economic success and raised doubts about the sustainability of its growth model.

A recent study, sponsored partly by Beijing's municipal government, revealed that the mainland's energy intensity, an internationally adopted measure of energy efficiency, is not only far higher than industrialised nations, but much higher than developing nations such as Brazil and Mexico.

Primarily due to its growing reliance on dirty coal, China consumes seven times more energy than Japan and 2.8 times more than India to produce one unit of GDP.

In terms of carbon emissions, the gap between the world's top two carbon emitters, China and the US, has also widened at a stunning and accelerating pace.

A joint estimate by the European Commission and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found that China emitted nearly twice as much carbon as the US last year - just three years after it overtook the US as the world's largest carbon polluter.

Incredibly, China's per capita carbon footprint - 7.2 tonnes last year - is almost on a par with that of the European Union (7.5 tonnes) and by some estimates will surpass America's (17.3 tonnes last year) by 2017.

Beijing has been quick to reject such projections, saying China will not "follow the path of the US" because it would be a "disaster for the world".

But its claim to be a responsible international stake-holder has been met with scepticism due to the lack of transparency over its carbon and energy data and its backtracking on pledges to cut pollution.

The central government has refused to provide an update of the country's carbon footprint since 1994 and has rejected binding caps on emissions for years, fearing such limits would hurt its rapid economic rise.

The latest worrying example is Beijing's hastily approved 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.22 trillion) infrastructure spending programme - including rail lines, roads and airports - widely seen as a second stimulus package, similar to 4 trillion yuan injection four years ago.

Although Premier Wen Jiabao and his disciples have strongly disputed such perceptions, environmentalists have warned it could be another economic and environmental disaster in the making.

Instead of investing in sectors such as health care and education, the previous stimulus led to a resurgence of energy-intensive and heavily polluting industries that the country was supposed to phase out. Instead, it created overcapacity in the steel and cement sectors and a sea of bad loans at state banks.

Environmentalists and economists at home and abroad have blamed the short-sighted policies of Wen and President Hu Jintao for the reckless pursuit of short-term economic recovery for the deterioration of deeper structural problems.

Few are hopeful China can break away from its export-driven, capital- and energy intensive economic model.

Several experts revising the environmental law said the top leadership appeared reluctant to embrace not just major changes, but even vital incremental steps.

"It is unbelievable that legislators did not even rewrite the purpose of the law, which, more than 20 years ago, said it was aimed at boosting socialist modernisation and economic development," said Professor Wang Canfa , from China University of Political Science and Law.

"What's the point of amending an outdated law if they're so afraid of making any necessary changes?"