China Dims Climate Hopes

China's development takes precedence over reduction in global warming emissions, a government report says.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-11-11
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BOSTON--China's government is concerned about the damage from global warming but sees little chance of controlling emissions because of its reliance on coal, an official report said last month.

On Oct. 29, the State Council released an 11,000-word "white paper" on China's policies and actions to combat climate change. Experts said the document, published in advance of a U.N. meeting on global warming in Beijing on Nov. 7, offered little or nothing new.

"I'm not surprised by anything that's in this white paper," Elizabeth Economy, Asia studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told Radio Free Asia. "Essentially, they're reiterating their positions that they've articulated over the past few years."

Introducing the paper, officials repeated their calls for the West to take the lead in reducing emissions of harmful gases, saying that developed countries should spend at least 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product on the environmental campaign.

So far, spending is "far below that level," said Xie Zhenhua, vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Analysts say the global warming debate has been stuck in a rut over blame for the problem. China believes developed countries should shoulder the primary responsibility, arguing that the West has contributed far more to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over the past century.

In the period from 1904 to 2004, China's CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels accounted for only 8 percent of the world's total, the paper said. But Xie conceded that China may now release more of the heat-trapping gas than the United States.

"According to our data, China's current total emissions are almost the same as that of the United States," said Xie. "Whether or not we have surpassed the U.S. in emissions is in itself not important. We should look at the issue fairly and from a historic view."

Drive for development

Experts are concerned that the debate is slowing the fight against global warming.

"If anyone were looking for a fundamental transformation in the way that China does business, then that person is bound to be disappointed," Economy said.

The government's well-worn argument focuses on China's lower emissions on a per capita basis, although its total environmental impact is a product of its population of 1.3 billion, the world's largest. The paper argued that China lags behind in terms of urbanization and industrialization, and as a result, it has a lot of catching up to do.

The drive for development means that China will continue to be the world's biggest producer and consumer of high-polluting coal. The paper pledged that "China will strive for rational growth of energy demand," but it acknowledged that the country's contribution to global warming will continue to rise.

"However, its coal-dominated energy mix cannot be substantially changed in the near future, thus making the control of greenhouse gas emissions rather difficult," the white paper said.

"By and large, it's a reiteration of the 'Development first, environment second, and to the extent that we can integrate the two, we'll do so' [policy]," Economy said.

Joanna Lewis, a climate change expert and assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, sees some positive signs in the paper's recognition of global warming and the damage it is doing to China.

"They are increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change and they lay out what the science is saying about what the likely impacts are to be," Lewis told RFA.

"But when you start to turn to what their strategies and objectives are for addressing climate change, you see them falling into the same rhetoric."

Significant problems

Global warming is creating significant problems for China's environment and economy, according to the paper. Among the effects are drought, crop damage, and declining yields for wheat, rice, and corn. More pest problems, deforestation, and plant diseases are expected. Glacier melting, higher sea levels, and more frequent storms will also result, the paper said.

The document detailed many steps that China has already taken, including progress toward the country's goal of raising energy efficiency by 20 percent in the five years until 2010. But so far, the country has failed to meet any of its annual energy-saving targets, while fast-paced economic plans continue to stress industrialization, construction, and consumption.

"While the Chinese government certainly is concerned about climate change, at the moment it really is a second or third-level issue behind development and economic growth," said Lewis.

During the current economic downturn, the conflict between economic and environmental interests has been a major governmental concern.

Liu He, deputy director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economy Work, said the slowdown could be an opportunity for China to restructure and follow a "low-carbon path," the official China Daily reported on Nov. 6.

But on the same day, China Business News reported that the Transport Ministry is considering a massive 5-trillion-yuan ($730-billion) economic stimulus program to create new roads and port infrastructure. The plan would benefit the construction, steel and cement industries, which have been blamed for much of China's pollution, the report said.

On Nov. 9, the government announced a slightly smaller 4-trillion-yuan ($586-billion) plan to stimulate the economy. The program is still seen as massive with spending equal to 7 percent of China's GDP over the next two years.

The funds will be targeted at sectors including low-income housing, rural infrastructure and transportation in the period through 2010, the State Council said.


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