By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON—China fell short of its energy efficiency targets last year as the government focused on stimulating the economy, analysts say.
On Feb. 25, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that the country reduced energy consumption per unit of GDP by 2.2 percent, state media reported.
It was the smallest improvement since 2006 and less than half of the energy efficiency gain in 2008, according to NBS data.
Most analysts attributed the slowdown in the key index to the government's focus on stimulus to avoid an economic slowdown.
Much of China's 4 trillion yuan (U.S. $586 billion) stimulus package has been aimed at construction, said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee in Edinburgh.
"As soon as you have an economic stimulus package in any industrializing economy, that money is going to be thrown at infrastructure—buildings, pipelines, railways that use steel, cement, plate glass, and things that are highly energy-intensive," Andrews-Speed said.
While China salvaged some cuts in energy intensity from its construction spree, the rate means the government is unlikely to meet its end-2010 goal of a 20 percent improvement compared with 2005 under its 11th Five-Year Plan.
"To keep on track for that 20 percent reduction, one would have expected another 4 or 5 percent," said Andrews-Speed.
"So, the fact that it's only about 2 percent has to be a disappointment both to the Chinese government and to observers outside."
Based on the NBS figures, China would have to achieve at least an 8 percent cut in energy intensity this year to meet its five-year goal.
Andrews-Speed said the five-year target now looks "virtually impossible."
The last time China recorded such a large drop was during the Asian currency crisis of 1998.
The NBS estimated that China's total energy consumption grew 6.3 percent last year while GDP increased 8.7 percent.
In 2008, energy use rose 4 percent as GDP climbed 9.6 percent.
China's official figures are frequently subject to questions and revisions, and the current ones are likely to be no exception.
Curiously, the latest numbers reported by the official Xinhua news agency do not reflect revisions to the 2008 data on energy efficiency that the NBS and Xinhua reported on Dec. 25.
In his work report to the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 5, Premier Wen Jiabao used the revised figures, which would still require a 7-percent efficiency gain this year to meet the five-year target.
Reporting glitches aside, analysts say the NBS figures also cast doubts on climate change pledges that China made at the U.N. conference in Copenhagen last December.
As its contribution to fighting global warming, China promised to reduce "carbon intensity" 40-45 percent by 2020 compared with 2005.
No emissions caps
Like the energy index, the improvement would be in carbon emissions per unit of GDP, so that total emissions would rise as the economy grows.
Beijing has rejected calls for caps on emissions, fearing restraints on GDP growth.
But experts say that last year's energy efficiency results raise concerns that China will not be able meet its own climate targets.
"China, you could say, was very fortunate that the Copenhagen meeting was in December before the 2010 statistics came out," Andrews-Speed said.
"It raises valid questions for their 40 percent target on carbon intensity in 2020. How realistic is that?"
Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the weaker efficiency results may explain China's conservative stance on carbon cuts.
"They're probably learning that they'd better not set these goals for themselves too high," Ebel said.
"What happens when you don't meet them? People are going to say that China's not doing its job, and we've got to punish them somehow."
Ebel said the government has made clear that GDP remains its highest priority, while energy and climate problems are secondary.
"I think the Communist Party understands that they've got to continue along the economic growth path," said Ebel, but the stimulus appears to have set back energy and environmental goals that also have significant support.
"When you put that much money into the economy—spend, spend, spend—and don't pay very much attention to energy efficiency, you're going to get results that aren't very pleasing," he said.
Long term cited
But other experts are wary of reading too much into last year's performance.
"What's important is the long-term trend rather than the year-to-year variability," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Although he agrees that China is unlikely to meet its 2010 efficiency goals, Levi argues that the effort is still worth pursuing.
"Whether it makes important strides or not is a separate question," he said. "The targets are still useful in that they focus the government. At the same time, it's a reminder that targets and outcomes are two different things."
Andrews-Speed said the purpose of China's targets is not to convince the world that it is doing something. Instead, the government may use the targets to persuade energy producers and consuming industries that they need to do more.
"It's not there just to please people outside. It is there so they can manage their energy sector and their economy more effectively," he said.