China is setting new energy goals for the next decade amid controversy over a campaign to meet current targets by the end of this year.
On Oct. 18, an official of China's National Energy Administration (NEA) told state media that the country would cut energy use by 17.3 percent per unit of economic output between 2011 and 2015.
A further reduction of 16.3 percent is planned for the 2016-2020 period, said Huang Li, a deputy director of the NEA.
It is unclear yet whether Huang's statement will be the government's final word on the efficiency goals, which will come before the National People's Congress as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan next March.
But experts are already combing the numbers to assess the direction of China's development and environmental policies.
"In my view, these are ambitious targets," said David Fridley, deputy leader of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
The reductions are less than the current five-year goal of a 20-percent cut in energy waste that China is trying to reach by the end of 2010. But Fridley says the numbers reflect realization that the easiest steps, like closing old factories and power plants, have already been taken.
"Achieving these lower goals will require them to come up with new programs, new policies, new targets and a greater focus on the policies that are working already," he said.
The proposed "energy intensity" targets also have consequences for climate change that will be closely watched, now that China has grown into the world's largest source of greenhouse gases.
The government has already pledged to cut carbon emissions 40-45 percent by 2020 per unit of GDP from 2005 levels.
Fridley said Huang's targets would actually lead to a 45-percent drop in energy intensity, which could produce even greater carbon reductions if China meets goals for switching to non-fossil fuels.
"It actually is somewhat higher than the way they've expressed this target before," Fridley said.
The real effect on the environment may get lost in the numbers, however, since China bases its efficiency targets on consumption per unit of GDP.
With the economy expected to keep growing at or near double-digit annual rates, so will the total volume of energy use and emissions. The issue is whether the total will grow more or less.
The government has attached enormous importance to meeting its current 20-percent energy efficiency goal, often with harsh local measures like power cuts to factories and residential areas in recent months. By the end of 2009, the reductions had reached 15.6 percent, but this year saw slippage caused by economic stimulus programs.
One reason for a last-minute push is that Beijing has insisted on using its measurement of emissions as the basis for a global warming treaty without international review or verification.
By meeting its energy targets, the government hopes to gain credibility for its climate pledge, despite widespread doubts about data accuracy.
"In a way, it is target-driven," said Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"They're showing that they're willing and capable of doing whatever it takes to meet a particular goal."
"Then they can take that and say to the rest of the world, we set this goal and we made it. Now, what are you doing?" said Ebel. "It's as much propaganda as anything."
Despite the focus on targets, the government has frequently aired concerns about the accuracy of its own data.
Most recently in July, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) ordered local price bureaus to stop submitting "fake statistics," the official English-language China Daily reported.
In August, the paper cited signs of "false reporting" in regional GDP figures used by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In September, the NBS also announced steps to make its housing data "more credible."
And in October, Vice Premier Li Keqiang said China "must improve the quality, accuracy and credibility of statistics," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Yet, the government seems to have staked even more credibility on reporting success in meeting the 20-percent energy efficiency benchmark.
Call for accurate reporting
Fridley said China has taken real steps with measures like closing older coal-fired power plants. But he sees accurate reporting as more valuable than doubtful data, even if China falls a few points short of its goal.
"Perhaps people would think that they're being somewhat more transparent about the number than what might be the case if it comes in solidly at 20.0 [percent]," he said.
The government has also tried to cast recent performance on energy-saving in the best possible light.
On Oct. 25, for example, the NEA reported that power consumption in September fell 12 percent from the previous month. But it failed to note that it rose 8.5 percent from the year-earlier period, although the figures were cited by Xinhua.
Electricity use also climbed 18 percent in the first three quarters of the year from the comparable 2009 period, a much faster pace than the 10.6-percent growth in GDP for the first nine months.
The year-to-year comparison "is anything but reassuring," said China Daily in a commentary.