China’s mixed results

China‘s state-directed approach to making its energy use both more efficient and less polluting has its strengths and weaknesses.

As the Washington Post reported in its lead business story on Sunday, China has been taking some drastic action to meet its emissions-cutting goals, notably a central government campaign started in August that has required several of China’s provincial governments to make steel mills work nine days then take five days off and for cement plants’ electricity supplies to be cut off for stretches. As the story points out, the programme rewards officials who ruthlessly achieve their targets, even in the face of local protests.

The Banyan Notebook blog on Economist.com likewise contrasts China’s ability to direct energy and emissions cuts by fiat with the convoluted process required by western democracies. While the rule-by-edict approach of the Chinese achieves results, at least in the short-term, both stories note the drawbacks.

Banyan cites the example of Anping county, which it argues demonstrates both China’s seriousness in achieving its goals as well as the limits of its power after successful protests over the arbitrariness of the cuts led to a reversal of policy:

… Even so, China does seem to be taking its energy-intensity target extremely seriously, which must be welcomed. Nor is it bad news that a local government cannot get away with high-handed collective punishment of its power-guzzling citizens. It too will have to enter the morass, and try to persuade people to change their behaviour.

The Washington Post story also raises the difficulties of monitoring China’s progress due to questions of accuracy of its statistics. As is widely acknowledged, China’s statistics are notoriously subject to manipulation – due, at least partly, to the fact that preferment can be based heavily on statistical results. So, “the lack of a national accounting standard for emissions makes it difficult for independent observers in China and elsewhere to monitor how much progress is being made,” the Post’s story notes.

The story quotes Ranping Song, manager of a greenhouse gas accounting programme at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, saying that work is being done on ways to bring China into compliance with international standards, “but it remains unclear whether companies will disclose their data publicly, and how they’ll be held accountable if they miss targets … “‘It may be difficult for the government to get the right information to make the right decisions,’ he said.”

Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts show that China’s electricity consumption (subscription required) alone will double over the next decade. (See sample table below).

Electricity consumption and supply
  2009a   2010b   2011b   2012b   2013b   2014b   2015b   2020b  
Consumption (twh)                
Industry 2,210.4 2,459.9 2,714.5 3,007.8 3,289.7 3,598.5 3,951.2 5,341.6
Transport 36.6 42.0 47.9 53.7 59.6 66.1 72.5 98.7
Residential 451.2 501.7 558.4 615.1 677.1 744.9 804.2 1,136.1
Commercial & public services 180.4 204.8 230.8 259.5 291.3 325.1 357.1 513.9
Other 818.5 895.8 977.8 1,066.0 1,157.4 1,253.3 1,354.5 1,831.6
Total 3,697.1 4,104.3 4,529.4 5,002.1 5,475.2 5,987.9 6,539.5 8,921.7
 % change, year on year 9.4 11.0 10.4 10.4 9.5 9.4 9.2 5.0
Capacity (gwe)                
Combustible fuels 674.5 759.5 850.1 941.4 1,036.4 1,136.4 1,251.4 1,812.8
Nuclear 9.0 9.8 11.4 17.0 24.1 35.4 44.2 60.2
Hydro 172.3 182.3 191.3 207.3 219.3 232.3 244.3 300.3
Non-hydro renewables 20.2 30.3 42.4 54.6 63.7 71.9 81.1 118.7
 Geothermal
 Solar 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.6 0.7 0.9 1.1 1.7
 Tide/wave/ocean
 Wind 19.2 29.2 41.2 53.2 62.2 70.2 79.2 116.2
Net maximum 875.9 981.8 1,095.1 1,220.1 1,343.5 1,475.9 1,620.9 2,291.9
a Economist Intelligence Unit estimates. b Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts.
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.

In terms of its energy mix, combustible fuels – especially coal – still will account for the bulk of generating capacity, even though nuclear capacity grows exponentially and non-hydro renewables also continue their rapid pace of growth.

It should be noted, however, that China has consistently increased its targets for non-fossil fuels over the last few years and has also shown a greater determination to meet both clean-energy (and emissions-cutting) goals as well as economic growth. As China Daily reports on Monday, government direction is the overriding factor but also public (and business) opinion is coming round more to the idea that growth and a better energy mix are not mutually exclusive.

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Summit fallout

The Guardian (UK) carried a fascinating insight into the failed Copenhagen summit from Mark Lynas, an Oxford-based climate change consultant and activist who was in attendance at the inter-governmental sessions there. The piece was titled How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room, which really requires little further explanation.

Whether or not one shares Mr Lynas’ position on anthropogenic climate change, CO2 policies, etc., his account of the talks has a very convincing ring to it in terms of the process involved in one of these events. One doesn’t even have to agree with his conclusion that China is “to blame” for the failure to get the kind of deal that he, his fellow climate activists and indeed most governments appear to have wanted out of Copenhagen, to understand what went wrong. For the truth is that all of these processes, whatever the “One World” pronouncements from politicians involved, are ultimately a complex set of countervailing negotiations around national interests. The bigger the number of countries involved — 193 for Copenhagen, for goodness sake — and the more divergent those national interests, the less likely is the prospect of a meaningful outcome. In the case of Copenhagen, it was clear long before it commenced that there was little prospect that it would achieve anything conclusive. But the completeness of its failure exceeded even the pessemistic expectations. 

In a way, however, that failure — and the nature of the failure, as spelled out in Mr Lynas’ account –can be seen as a good thing. It is likely to focus governments more on what can — and should — be done at national levels, even if only rationalised on the grounds of pollution-control, energy security, promotion of economic and technological development, etc. There will be, of course, much debate at the natoional and the inter-governmental levels about costs, monitoring, effective delivery systems, etc. But it may well be more rational if done in more manageable, less amorphous groups than was seen to fail at the Copenhagen shambles. Already there is talk of a much smaller group of the most powerful — and most polluting — countries negotiating outside of a UN process, perhaps at a G30 level.

The UN’s top climate man, Yvo de Boer, generally a voice of reason in the process, could have had Mr Lynas in mind (as well as Ed Miliband, the UK environment minister and others from the west, and those responding for China) when he called for the blame game to finish and to move onto constructive talks. But sometimes a big, noisey row is needed so that everyone can see what really is what before moving onto the business at hand. And maybe the UN forum for debating and managing the climate change process has run its course.

Copenhagen fatigue

Chinese smog (NASA)

Put it down to “Copenhagen fatigue” as the hype levels reach mind-numbing proportions ahead of next month’s big climate summit, but some of the headlines of the last two days might give the impression that the US and China have finally put in place firm carbon emissions-cutting commitments that will allow the world to reach a deal in Denmark.

On Friday, it was the turn of the Chinese to capture front pages. In the US, the New York Times had “China joins US in pledge of hard targets on emissions“, while the Los Angeles Times went with “China vows to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2020“.

China’s commitment is neither a hard target nor has it agreed to cut emissions. Rather, the Chinese pledge is an aim to cut energy intensity by between 40% and 45% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level, where energy intensity is measured as the unit of energy required to produce a unit of GDP. That announcement is not just a diplomatic sop aimed at appeasing doubters over China’s commitment to act on climate change, as the South China Morning Post argues (subscription required). Nonetheless, it is best described as an aspiration, and not even a new one; also, it is something which is a fruit of development rather than specifically aimed at cutting emissions. Countries get less energy-intense naturally as heavy industry becomes a smaller proportion of economic growth.

China has made great strides in energy efficiency over the last couple of decades, but progress has been patchy and it gets more difficult as development progresses. The graph below comes from a blog in September by Roger Pielke, an environmental studies professor at University of Colorado, and maps recent Chinese progress. It shows that China should already have achieved half the goal it has pledged – under its 2005-2010 plan it aimed to cut energy intensity by 20%. However, it had only managed to cut by 7.4% through 2008. To achieve its new aim by 2020 will require feats that are well beyond anything that has been demonstrated hitherto.

In any case, as a Reuters story points out, how will we know? The measuring and verifying process for carbon emissions makes nuclear weapons verification look like small  beans.

The headlines are being generated, of course, to soften the fact that Copenhagen will fail to create a new convention to supplant the Kyoto protocol, something that will have to wait until next year at the earliest. (see Copenhagen countdown subscription required).

The pledge from President Obama, such as it is (cuts of “around 17%” from 2005 levels by 2020), also is only an aspiration until it can be ratified in Congress next year. As The Economist magazine points out:

“The promised target is no different than that already passed by the House of Representatives, and considerably lower than what other rich countries (especially in Europe) have promised.”

It has also been noticed that Mr Obama’s visit to Copenhagen is a somewhat half-hearted affair, timed to coincide with his trip to Oslo to collect the Noble Peace Prize and coming early on in proceedings—the opening day—”well before the crunch time near the end” (see It’s off to Denmark we go subscription required).

Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s shadow development secretary, sees the “litmus test” of success as the world’s ability to keep global warming to two degrees. Worryingly as The Independent pointed out earlier this month, scientists are already planning for worse. Mitchell added that if the “deal on the table doesn’t look like it is going to do this, then the British delegation must have the nerve to reject the usual back-slapping and face-saving statements”. With delegates already managing expectations such a stand is likely to prove fruitless.

Yvo de Boer, the UN’s climate change head, has also been managing expectations this week. On Wednesday, at a pre-summit press conference, he talked of four elements of success at Copenhagen, starting with firm emissions-cutting commitments from developed countries, especially the US. The other aims about helping the developing countries to fund their plans for curbing emissions growth are contingent on the first, which won’t happen. So, he said, look out for a deal in Copenhagen to allow the Kyoto protocol to continue after it expires in 2012; but whatever the headlines, such a small achievement shouldn’t be confused with a meaningful replacement for Kyoto that would bring in countries accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions.