China Action on Global Warming Gets Mixed Reviews

2007-06-18
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April 19, 2007: The sun rises over eastern Beijing's developing skyline amid a murky layer of pollutants already hovering over the city. Photo: AFP/Frederic J. Brown

China’s government has confirmed its targets for cutting pollution but is resisting tougher curbs to fight global warming, experts say.

Speaking on June 4 in Beijing, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Minister Ma Kai unveiled the government’s work plan for reducing pollution and conserving energy between now and 2010.

In its 62-page report, the NDRC backed many of the same targets, tasks, and programs that the government has already been pursuing under its current Five-Year Plan.

Ma said that China will also boost development and deployment of energy-saving technologies, increase the efficiency of coal-burning power plants, and evaluate local officials on their enforcement of environmental rules.

Because what they’re saying is ‘We are simply not going to commit ourselves to any sort of compromise in terms of our economic development.’

But the plan refuses to set numerical targets for cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, which are blamed for global warming. Despite China’s grave pollution problems, Ma said that economic growth will remain the country’s “first and overriding priority.”

In interviews with Radio Free Asia, environmental experts gave the NDRC plan mixed reviews.

China’s ‘true colors’

Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said that Ma’s statement on economic growth as the country’s primary mission reveals the Chinese government’s “true colors.”

“Because what they’re saying is ‘We are simply not going to commit ourselves to any sort of compromise in terms of our economic development.’”

Economy said China’s previous goals for reducing pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) have already been missed. “They had an SO2 reduction target from 2002-2005. They promised they were going to reduce SO2 by 10 percent, and it increased by 27 percent instead,” she said.

The NDRC plan has criticized the “excessively fast” growth of the six industries that account for 70 percent of energy consumption, mostly from coal-fired power plants. These include power, steel, nonferrous metals, construction materials, oil processing, and chemicals.

But Economy said that so far there has been no sign of restraint.

“We’ve seen that energy use continues to grow…that [these industries] in fact grew by 20 percent in the first quarter of this year. It’s very difficult to see how they’re going to meet these targets.”

Emission cutbacks possible

Joanna Lewis, senior international fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia, said that while continuing increases in production do mean more pollution, the NDRC plan’s “potential to reduce emissions below what they would have been is still substantial.”

“You will still have emissions increasing [by 2010], but not as much as they would have without these policies being in place,” Lewis said.

Lewis added that the plan has raised hopes that China’s government will follow through in new ways on environmental concerns.

“It places climate change in the broader context of what China is doing within its energy sector and within other sectors, and it really packages them all together as a national climate change strategy for the country.”

Lewis said China’s State Council has also put more political power behind anti-pollution efforts by forming a leading group of officials to monitor energy efficiency and environmental issues.

Other useful limits

John Coequyt, energy and climate policy specialist at the Washington office of the environmental group Greenpeace, said that even if China doesn't agree to place caps on emissions to curb global warming, there are other useful limits it can impose.

“What we’d like to see is China starting to show some flexibility on introducing some other binding obligations, potentially a limit on emissions from their electricity sector or maybe something like their steel sector.”

“They need to open themselves up to some sort of regulation on maybe a more limited scale,” Coequyt said.

Coequyt added that China’s central government should enforce its often-repeated order to shut down the country’s dirtiest small coal mines and ensure compliance by local officials.

“There needs to be stronger coordination among the [central and local] governments in China,” Coequyt said. “Hopefully, we’ll see that over the next couple of years, and we’ll see at the same time more renewable energy in China.”

“But for now, those are obviously the problems that need to be addressed as China moves forward.”

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.

Original reporting in Chinese

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