BOSTON—China's economy will face environmental limits despite the government's stand against tougher greenhouse gas curbs, analysts say.
As the world climate change conference in Copenhagen enters its second and final week, China continues to resist caps on its emissions, insisting on a formula to cut the carbon content of its economic growth instead.
The issue has been at the heart of disagreements between industrialized nations and developing countries like China, which has pledged to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 percent per unit of GDP in 2020, compared with 2005.
The United States has offered an absolute cut of 17 percent in 2020, leading to an 80-percent reduction in 2050,
regardless of economic growth.
Some experts say China's growth will swamp any improvement in carbon content, resulting in no reduction of emissions from the biggest greenhouse gas source in the world.
"What they've laid out for themselves looks good on paper, but when you start examining it, they're not going to be ahead of the game at all by 2020," said Robert Ebel, senior advisor to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Ebel said China's policy reflects the government's fear of social unrest if it fails to deliver economic benefits.
"They're not going to take any actions that would slow the growth rate down because they know they would be in trouble," Ebel said.
But despite its stand on the climate treaty, Ebel believes China will bump against limits to its economic expansion
because of the sheer size of its energy consumption.
No indefinite growth
In a report last month entitled "Energy and Geopolitics in China: Mixing Oil and Politics," Ebel argues that the
country's growth cannot continue indefinitely without limits.
"China's economic growth is viewed as both unstoppable yet unsustainable," the study says. "Do its policymakers
understand that current growth rates cannot be continued forever and that change—read: slowdown—must come and relatively soon?"
The growth in energy consumption is likely to limit expansion, whether or not the government agrees to caps on
Particularly in the case of coal, which is the biggest source of carbon dioxide (CO2), China's growth in consumption has been intense.
Between 2002 and 2007, China doubled its coal consumption according to U.S. Department of Energy data. This year, the country is on track to burn 3 billion tons of coal, nearly three times as much as the second-largest consumer, the United States.
Even with conservative growth rates, China would double coal burning to 6 billion tons by 2025, or more than the
entire world consumed in 2004. But Ebel doubts such a volume will be possible.
"Should China be expected to consume 6 billion tons of coal by 2025?" the report asks. "No, it should not—not in
terms of its already-overburdened rail transport capacities, not in terms of its carbon emission levels, not in terms of its coal reserves, and not in terms of its energy efficiencies."
China's oil consumption may face similar limits and environmental effects. By 2020, China will surpass the United
States with imports of 12.5 million barrels of oil per day, the International Energy Agency said.
The demand is likely to strain both refining capacity and the world market. Yet, China's demand for private cars
continues to grow at astonishing rates.
Sales of over 12 million cars in the first 11 months of the year are up over 72 percent, according to industry data.
China has outsold the United States for 10 months in a row to become the top market in the world.
Aiming to 'maintain stability'
Taiya Smith, senior associate in the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees that Beijing is driven by economic concerns.
"On the domestic side, China's most important objective right now is to maintain stability, and the stability itself
is dependent on economic growth," Smith said.
But she added that the government is facing "increasing difficulties through energy security and environmental
degradation and now climate change, as well."
The overall effects of energy consumption may make pressure over climate change incidental, she suggested.
"The environmental contaminants issue is the one that's probably driving the Chinese much faster than climate change and carbon emissions. They have upwards of 50 protests a day around China over environmental issues," Smith said.
Smith believes China is in a position to make a climate change pledge that will meet both domestic and international needs.
In addition to the carbon intensity target, China has set significant environmental goals, including an increase its
use of renewable energy, she said.
In September, President Hu Jintao said China would raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to 15 percent by 2020 from an estimated 9 percent last year. Smith said there will also be major benefits from reforestation.
The government has pledged to increase forest cover by 40 million hectares (101 million acres), which will help to
absorb CO2 emissions, Smith said.
Reported by Michael Lelyveld. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.