Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Eye On China: China Set to Pass U.S. as Largest Emitter of Global Warming Pollution

[From the San Francisco Chronicle:]

Far more than previously acknowledged, the battle against global warming will be won or lost in China, even more so than in the West, new data show.

A report released last week by Beijing authorities indicated that as its economy continues to expand at a red-hot pace, China is highly likely to overtake the United States this year or in 2008 as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

This information, along with data from the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based alliance of oil importing nations, also revealed that China's greenhouse gas emissions have recently been growing by a total amount much greater than that of all industrialized nations put together.

"The magnitude of what's happening in China threatens to wipe out what's happening internationally," said David Fridley, leader of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"Today's global warming problem has been caused mainly by us in the West, with the cumulative (carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere, but China is contributing to the global warming problem of tomorrow."

New statistics released in Beijing on Wednesday by China's National Bureau of Statistics show that China's consumption of fossil fuels rose in 2006 by 9.3 percent, about the same rate as in previous years -- and about eight times higher than the U.S. increase of 1.2 percent.

While China's total greenhouse gas emissions were only 42 percent of the U.S. level in 2001, they had soared to an estimated 97 percent of the American level by 2006.

"The new data are not encouraging," said Yang Fuqiang, China director for the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco organization that works extensively with Lawrence Berkeley scientists and the Chinese government on energy-saving programs. "China will overtake the United States much faster than expected as the No. 1 emitter."

China's top environmental official admitted Wednesday that the results show the government's environment agenda of the past few years has been ineffective.

"Economic growth is still excessive ... and there is slow progress in restructuring obsolete and backward production capacity," said Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Agency.

"The new data show that many local officials are more concerned about economic development, about increasing gross domestic product, and see energy efficiency and environmental protection as a lower priority," said Yang, of the Energy Foundation.

In an attempt to force local governments to obey energy-efficiency edicts from Beijing, the government recently announced that local officials' pay and promotion will be judged in part based on their environmental record, not just their economic success. The first evaluation period will be in July.

China's emergence as a global warming polluter has been intensely controversial in international negotiations over climate change.

The Bush administration refused to join the Kyoto Protocol in part because the pact committed only industrialized nations, but not fast-growing poorer nations like China, to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Chinese officials, however, note that the country's per capita emissions are far below those in the West, and they say any move to adopt mandatory cuts now would restrain its economic growth and in effect penalize its 1.3 billion people for being poor. The officials say China must be given the chance to attain the West's standard of prosperity before it will cut emissions.

"It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per-capita emissions," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said last month.

"Developed countries bear an unshirkable responsibility," she said, adding that they should "lead the way in assuming responsibility for emissions cuts."

International negotiations have begun over a successor pact to the Kyoto Protocol, and industrial nations -- and most environmentalists -- are insisting that big developing nations such as China, India and Brazil commit to reductions.

China's hard line may finally be softening, however.

The Chinese government recently admitted that global warming will dramatically impact China's ability to feed its people. A government report released in January said that climate change will cause China's production of wheat, corn and rice to drop by as much as 37 percent over the next 50 years.

Precipitation over the country's northern grainbelt is expected to drop markedly, causing worsened droughts and dust storms, while increased flooding and typhoons are expected in the subtropical south, the report said.

What China needs, many experts say, is help from the United States and other Western nations to help adopt energy-saving technologies. China's energy consumption per unit of production is 40 percent higher than the world's average, and about 70 percent of its energy comes from coal, usually burned in highly inefficient power plants.

The U.S. Energy Department carries out some technical cooperation with China on issues such as coal, but most forms of U.S. assistance to China have been barred under sanctions imposed by Congress after the 1989 Tiananmen killings in Beijing.

Although Chinese officials say their country should receive foreign grants and subsidies, the Central Bank has the world's highest foreign-exchange reserves, at $1.1 trillion, so most experts say China needs training and technology rather than cash.

China has much to learn from California, said Barbara Finamore, director of the China program of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The state's Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission have exchanged information with their counterparts in China in recent years, but Finamore said much more is needed to help spread California's energy-efficient ways.

"This is what China is missing," Finamore said, referring to the state's complex mix of efficiency standards for buildings, appliances and industry. "We have no national energy-efficiency program, but 20 U.S. states use them, and China is on the brink of using them."

This is scary news. We all knew this was coming, but estimates of when China would surpass the United States as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases had projected that we had a few more years.

These new findings show how absolutely crucial it is that the United States figures out it's own greenhouse gas reduction plan as soon as possible. We need to lead by example and put ourselves on the path to emissions reductions of at least 80% by 2050. Our credibility in international negotiations is incredibly poor when we continue to take the "we'll cut our emissions when you cut yours" stance. As the world's richest nation, and the world's largest contributor to cumulative greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere (a title we will regain much longer than the title of largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases), we must do our part to reduce our emissions. Only then will we have credibility when negotiating with China and other developing nations.

Our success or failure in international negotiations to arrange a follow up to the Kyoto Protocol that includes some kind of standard for rapidly developing giants such as China, India and Brazil may very well determine our success or failure in stopping global warming.

It's also crucial for the United States to cut it's emissions as soon as possible in order to 'make room' for increasing emissions from these developing countries, at least for the time being. We all share a global 'carbon budget', the cumulative amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases that we can afford to put into the atmosphere over the next century. The United States and other developed nations have already spent the last 100 years eating up part of the global carbon budget, and it is unjust for developed countries to tell developing countries such as China dn India that they must cut emissions at the same rate as developed countries.

The Bush Administration's justification for not joining the Kyoto Protocol because it left out developing nations like China is completely absurd for all of the above reasons.

It's time to stop dragging our heals on climate change. It's time to fulfill our own responsibilities and cut our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. It's time to help developing nations such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia adopt energy efficient technologies and clean energy production technologies to reduce their carbon intensity as their economies grow. And it's time to lead the world forward towards stabilizing the climate.

No less than the future of the world as we know hangs in the balance.

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