China increasing climate change mitigation efforts

ChinaIt seems I was quite right when asking if cleantech is the new arms race as countries are increasing their renewable energies schemes. China announced yesterday that it is tripling its wind energy 2020 target.

This is the perfect occasion to have a look at how the country is progressing on climate change mitigation. Things are going in the right direction, perhaps not as fast as it should but this can change rapidly as the progresses are exponential.

With changes taking place every week I am optimistic about the December negotiations in Copenhagen for the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Indeed, the major emitters are increasingly worried and thus ready to act to avoid the worse. Climate change / global warming represent a national security threat and this fact is becoming more and more understood.

The Guardian published recently a great article showing that China might be much more from beginning mitigating climate change that many would think.

The Chinese government is for the first time considering setting targets for carbon emissions, a significant development that could help negotiations on a Kyoto successor treaty at Copenhagen later this year, the Guardian has learned.

Su Wei, a leading figure in China’s climate change negotiating team, said that officials were considering introducing a national target that would limit emissions relative to economic growth in the country’s next five-year plan from 2011.

“It is an option. We can very easily translate our [existing] energy reduction targets to carbon dioxide limitation” said Su. “China hasn’t reached the stage where we can reduce overall emissions, but we can reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity.”

A second government adviser, Hu Angang, has said China should start cutting overall emissions from 2020. While that is a minority view and final decisions are some way off, the proposals are striking because they are at odds with China’s official negotiating stance.

Beijing has hitherto rejected carbon emission caps or cuts, arguing that its priority is to improve its people’s living standards – and that the west caused the global warming problem and should fix it. But developed nations argue that they cannot commit to deep cuts and to substantial funding for developing nations to fight climate change unless those countries embrace emissions targets.

Environmental groups and foreign diplomats said a carbon intensity target would be a significant step forward. Any move by China, the world’s fastest expanding major economy, biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and most influential developing nation, would have an enormous impact on the outcome of the Copenhagen summit in December.

“It would be a significant step for China to set a target that directly links carbon emissions to economic growth for the first time,” said Yang Ailun of Greenpeace.

“This is a green shoot of pragmatism that should be nurtured,” said one European diplomat.

Hu, an influential economist and advocate of “green revolution”, is pressing the government to take a leadership role in Copenhagen by making a public commitment to reduce emissions, and last week submitted the proposal to set a new carbon dioxide goal.

He is one of 37 members of an elite body that advised the premier, Wen Jiabao, to include ambitious targets of a 20% improvement in energy efficiency and 10% reduction of pollution in the 2006-2010 plan. With government figures suggesting the country is on course to approach or exceed those goals, Hu suggests they be extended for the next plan with the addition of the carbon dioxide target.

If his proposal is accepted, Hu believes China will be able to make an international pledge this year to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from 2020.

His views are several steps beyond the negotiating position of the government and officials on the national development and reform commission (NDRC) are cautious even about goals for energy efficiency. “We are very optimistic to reach the energy intensity target of 20% or so,” said Su. “But personally I don’t think that we can achieve the same for the next five years as the low-lying fruit is already taken.”

He was still more doubtful about Hu’s suggestion that China’s carbon emissions could start to go down after 2020.

“We are trying to reach the emissions peak as early as possible for the earth and future generations. I cannot give you a specific year, but it’s certainly not realistic to say the peak will come in 2020,” he said.

But the debate on China’s role in greenhouse gas reductions is widening. Last month, the Chinese Academy of Science reported that the country’s carbon dioxide emissions relative to GDP should be reduced by 50% by 2020, and that total CO2 emissions should peak between 2030 and 2040 if the country introduced more stringent energy-saving policies and received more financial support and technology from overseas.

(…) The urgency is increasing. Citing new figures from the state bureau of energy, Hu said China overtook the US last year as the world’s biggest energy producer with 2.6bn tonnes of standard coal equivalent, seven years ahead of expectations. “If we can’t succeed in reducing energy consumption, then no one can. I tell the government that a 1% failure in China is a 100% failure for the world,” said Hu. “We must satisfy our national interest and match it with the interest of humanity.”

But the situation isn’t as rosy – or green for that matter – as The Guardian notes. The Green Leap Forward brings us a more balanced vision and insight:

A recent piece in the New York Times suggests that the economic slowdown is causing planners to favor of revenue-generating infrastructure and heavy industry projects that inevitably undercut environmental efforts that have been gaining momentum until recently.  The story’s position hinges largely on the recently adopted “green passage” policy that speeds up the approval of industrial projects in light of the urgent economic needs of the country.  Yes, folks, as CELB notes, that’s “green” for green light, not necessarily eco green.

(…) But I urge context.  The NYT article fails to mention the progress that has been made on clean energy development in the years leading to this econonomic implosion.  If there’s one thing that China observers can agree upon, its that Chinese government policy is schizophrenic if nothing else.  While there is little to say in defense of the the “green passage” policy or the reported slashing of environmental stimulus spending, it is important to keep the eye on the big picture to appreciate what has also been accomplished outside of the stimulus package.

It is worth the reminder that China ranked only second to Germany as the largest public investor in cleantech in 2007, according to a much-circulated 2008 report by the Climate Group (a must-read for green China skeptics).  It has the largest fleet of hydropower (not all completely eco-friendly, admittedly), and last year, it leap-frogged India to claim fourth spot globally in terms of total installed wind power capacity.  It is among the top three solar cell manufacturers on an annual basis, and its domestic solar market will benefit from very recently announced solar subsidies for roof top solar applications (see previous post).

Followers of this blog will be familiar with programs like China’s national energy and water intensity targets and the Top-1000 Energy Consuming Enterprises program.

(…) This is not to say that China is the posterchild for green; it has a long way to go in terms of building institutional capacity, sound governance and transparency that is needed for substantial progress on the sustainability front.

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