China Drives Emissions' Growth

The world's most populous nation accounts for 41 percent of world carbon dioxide rise.
An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
china-climate-carbon-305.gif Heavy smoke spews out from a factory in Jilin, northeast China's Jilin province, Dec. 3, 2010.
New greenhouse gas estimates paint a grim picture for the environment as China's emissions climb at double-digit rates, experts say.

Last year, world carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions jumped 5.9 percent, largely as a result of a 10.4-percent increase in China, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.

"It doesn't look like fossil fuel emissions are going to decline anytime soon, given the growth we've seen in the last decade in developing nations, most notably China," said Tom Boden, director of DOE's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The center's findings have drawn concern because the surge is higher than U.N. targets for limiting dangerous warming increases to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees
Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

"This puts us on a trajectory that exceeds even some of the most pessimistic scenarios that have been used historically," Boden told Radio Free Asia.

If the climate trends continue, the result would be greater rises in sea levels and faster melting of glaciers, according to previous reports by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The CDIAC findings suggest that high emissions growth in China and other developing countries will more than offset slower growth in mature economies like the United States, Boden said.

Last year, U.S. releases of CO2 rose 4.1 percent after a recession-driven drop of 7 percent in 2009.

Policy effects

Behind the raw numbers, the estimates provide opportunities to gauge the effect of China's policies and development on the environment.

Based on RFA calculations from the data, China already emits 50 percent more CO2 than the United States, although its economy is only about two-fifths the size in nominal terms.

Its share of world emissions rose to 24.6 percent last year, compared with the U.S. share of 16.4 percent.

China's lead has been gaining steadily. Last year, the country's growth in CO2 accounted for 41.3 percent of the global increase.

The rise in releases from China's coal burning represented
29 percent of the world's total CO2 growth, while emissions from its cement production alone exceeded all the CO2 releases of France and Britain combined.

Even with China's slower economic pace this year, the growth in its carbon emissions seems likely to continue, since its CO2 share from liquid fuels is still relatively small.

Only 14 percent of China's carbon emissions came from liquid fuels last year, compared with about 40 percent in the United States. The difference means that China's carbon contribution from private cars still has a long way to grow, despite the traffic that already clogs city streets.

Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group, a New York- based consulting firm, said China's recent emissions growth stems from its 4-trillion-yuan ($630-billion) stimulus package three years ago.


The economic boost caused the government to take an undeclared time-out from its energy efficiency campaign.

"The financial crisis put back efforts to improve the energy intensity of the economy significantly," said Houser.

"That stimulus program was heavy on infrastructure," he said. "It created a lot of demand for energy intensive products, and that created a lot of CO2."

The government may show better results on efficiency with efforts to cool down inflation and the economy from its 10.4- percent GDP growth rate last year.

Last week, the State Council approved plans to limit emissions after pledging to cut CO2 by 17 percent per unit of GDP over five years, the official Xinhua news agency said.

But because the economy will keep expanding each year, emissions will continue to rise.

"There's a lot of focus on energy efficiency, but when your economy's growing at 8 or 9 percent a year, that still means absolute emissions growth," Houser said.

"The question is how much can you slow the rate of growth in those emissions."

The clash between economic growth and the environment was reflected in a study released by Tsinghua University last week.

The research found that China's carbon emissions rose by one-third from 2006 to 2010, although CO2 per unit of GDP fell by over 20 percent, the official English-language China Daily said.

The trend of rising contributions to climate change from developing countries is likely to continue, even with improvements in energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and nuclear power.

"Over the next decade, even under the best-case scenario ...  emissions in China and other developing countries are going to increase. They're going to increase a lot," Houser said.

Similar conclusions

Last week, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) drew similar conclusions in its annual World Energy Outlook report.

Even if China follows the efficiency policies it has already set, its CO2 emissions will rise over 41 percent from 2009 levels by 2020. U.S. emissions are expected to decline 0.2 percent over the same period, the IEA said.

In 2009, China's releases were one-third higher than those of the United States. In 2020, they will be 88 percent greater, according to IEA data.

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