November 7th, 2001
Even as China reduces carbon dioxide emissions by reducing coal use, US policy encourages the dirty fuel
US president George Bush claims that the Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed because it does not include countries like China, which he claims will soon become the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. His claims are unfounded. According to a recent study by the US based non-governmental organisation Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), China has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 17 per cent in the four-year period from 1996 to 2000, even as its economy grew by 36 per cent. This reduction was the result of switching from coal to cleaner energy sources, initiating energy efficiency programmes and restructuring the economy.
The study was questioned in an article in the Washington Post, which claimed that China had underreported its coal and oil consumption while overstating its economic growth. However, even after using new, more conservative statistics, NRDC found that China's emissions actually reduced between 6 to 8 per cent as its economy grew between 22-27 per cent in the period 1996-99. On the other hand, US carbon dioxide emissions over the same time span rose by about 5 per cent annually.
Over the last decade, China's carbon dioxide emissions increased by 8.4 per cent only, while its economy grew by 142 per cent. In sharp contrast, US emissions increased by 14 per cent with economic growth of 31 per cent over the same period. Even if the Chinese economy continues to grow by 5 to 6 per cent per year, by 2020, China's carbon dioxide emissions will still be significantly lower than US emission levels in 1990.
According to the study, China's energy intensity, which denotes the amount of energy consumed per unit of economic output, has also been improving rapidly. The revised analysis shows that after following the US trajectory till 1996 China continued to improve its energy intensity at the same rate it did in the early 1980s, even as the US curve flattens out. Outdated technologies and limited economies of scale in most Chinese production facilities provided ample opportunities to achieve lower energy intensity.
China has aggressively moved to reduce its reliance on coal by phasing out all subsidies to the industry. It has ordered the closure of 25,000 coal mines and had closed inefficient coal fired electric plants. As a result coal consumption has gradually declined since 1996. Over the same period, US coal consumption increased by 40 tonnes, and will be further promoted by Bush under his energy policy. Already in the US, coal is fetching record prices.
"Our challenge is this: can we give people an acceptable lifestyle and also address the problem of climate change?" Zhou Dadi, director of the Energy Research Institute of the central government's state development planning commission, said to the New York Times. "I think we need a demonstration from a developed country to prove that a high living standard can be associated with lower carbon emissions. Then China will follow that example and do even better." China has announced that by 2005, clean energy will account for 75 per cent of energy consumed in the Chinese capital.