China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

China Emerges as the Yin and the Yang of the Global Warming Problem

The first of an occasional series on China's climate issues.

BEIJING -- Staring up at the dazzling, $32 million screen of light-emitting diodes suspended above one of this city's luxury shopping malls, it's hard to see China as a struggling "developing" country.

Sitting on a stone ledge with 34-year-old Wai Shen Ching hundreds of miles away in the remote village of Bai Bulou, it's hard to see China as anything else.

Residents of this Hebei Province grassland community have no running water. Lately, devastated by drought, the village has had little water at all. Men in straw hats and blue Mao jackets smoke the days away because, they say, farming has come to a standstill.

"There's no water, and there's no way to get water," Ching says, tugging at his gray-and-white camouflage t-shirt as two women in the distance leasd a herd of cows into a rocky pasture. "I don't think we have a future. I think it will be the same if you come back here in 10 years."

In a nutshell, China is at once the yin and the yang of the planet's climate problem. In Chinese philosophy, they are complementary opposites that describe the whole. The yin describes the inertia or the burden of getting a nation still mired in numbing poverty to change its polluting ways. The yang describes the positive force that Chinese leaders have begun to use to attack the world's largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Villages like Bai Bulou are the ones Chinese leaders have in mind when they argue the country is too poor to reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. This plateau town reflects a stark reality in China, where according to the World Bank, 21.5 million people live below the absolute poverty line, earning about $90 per year. All told, about 800 million Chinese live in rural areas far from the Las Vegas-like shopping streets that visitors now marvel at.

Both Chinas are real. Here, the checkout line at the Calvin Klein in the glitzy Chongwenmen neighborhood snakes out the door. In Shenzhen, smiling waitresses tap lunch orders into hand-held computers. This is China with a $7.8 trillion gross domestic product, on track to grow its economy another 8 percent this year despite the global recession. It is sitting on $2.13 trillion in foreign reserves and holding more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt.

"China is kind of a developed and a developing country at the same time," State Department climate envoy Todd Stern recently explained to Congress.

Stern's problem is that the current global climate change regime doesn't allow for this kind of nuance.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations neatly sliced the world into two categories. In one, it lumped industrialized nations, like Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States (though it never became a party to Kyoto), all responsible for a history of carbon pollution, and required them to slash emissions.

In the other category: everyone else. The developing countries -- a grouping that includes China, Brazil and other fast-growing economies as well as poverty-stricken nations like Cameroon and Yemen -- were exempted from carbon-cutting obligations.

With a new treaty under consideration, the United States is demanding that the United Nations take account of a world where countries straddle easily defined classifications. In theory, others agree, but achieving a system that accomplishes that -- and treats China in a way that satisfies both Chinese leaders and members of Congress -- is one of the trickiest jobs ahead for negotiators.

"We recognize that China is not going to do the exact same thing that the U.S. is going to do, but China's got to do a lot," Stern said. Reaching a deal in Copenhagen this December, he insisted, heavily depends on entrenched U.N. interests casting away "an ideology that the likes of China and India can't do anything more than Angola."

Defining "a lot" is the key. Ultimately, whether U.S. lawmakers view China more as developed or developing may determine how much they expect the Asian economic giant to take on under a new international treaty.

On the verge of a new commitment

One question is "What will China do?" said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. And, just as importantly, he added, it's "Will Congress accept it?"

The world may get an answer to the first question tomorrow, when Chinese President Hu Jintao speaks to the U.N. General Assembly. He is expected to announce a major climate change plan, which some experts say could include a new five-year commitment to reducing the greenhouse gas content of China's economy, and may indicate when China plans to peak its emissions before lowering them.

Last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's leading greenhouse gas emitter. Though China lags far behind the United States on an emissions-per-capita basis, its government has begun to push hard on policies that will slash its carbon pollution. It is also working to gain the lead on technologies such as solar energy and the electric car that will help solve other nations solve their carbon problems.

In the Zhangbei grasslands in Inner Mongolia, wind cuts through Hui Deng's hair as he surveys the 132 windmills the China Energy Conservation Investment Corp. (CECIC) built there. When Deng, general manager at CECIC's Zhangbei wind operation, came to the region in 2004, the state-owned company had plans for 100 megawatts of generation at the site. It has since doubled that capacity and aims to create 1 gigawatt of wind generation -- enough to power about 1 million California homes.

That's just one company. With the construction of 6 gigawatts of wind generation capacity last year alone, experts say China is well on its way to exceeding its goal of increasing the country's share of renewable energy 15 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, across the country, local officials are bowing to government orders and shuttering inefficient coal-fired power plants. That and an agreement among China's 1,000 top energy-consuming industries have put the country on a path toward meeting its target of reducing energy intensity 20 percent by 2010. If that's successful -- and analysts appear confident China will meet or come close to the goal -- it means 247 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would not enter the atmosphere.

"The U.S. needs to see and understand the degree of the Chinese commitment to energy efficiency," said Andreas Merkl, director of global initiatives for ClimateWorks in San Francisco. "If you look at what China is doing, it's pretty astonishing."

But the image of a China bursting with new green energy may not fit the emerging reality, either.

Sources say China's energy regulatory commission has begun to question whether the nation's wind resources are as strong as were initially believed, raising concerns about capacity.

Meanwhile, despite the ramp-up of renewables, China's coal-fired power plants are still coming online at a rapid pace. Most use the cleanest technology available. But analysts say that doesn't change the International Energy Agency's projection that China's coal use in the electricity sector will grow about 4.1 percent each year -- pumping about 13.8 gigawatts of fossil fuels annually into the air.

"They're not going to get to the 20 percent renewable goal," insisted Derek Scissors, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow who refers to himself as not a climate skeptic but a "China skeptic." Yet even if it did, he points out, "in that time, the projected coal energy swamps the rise in renewables. That doesn't mean the renewable goal wouldn't be useful. It's better than it would have been five years ago, but it's still bad."

Joanna Lewis, a professor at Georgetown University and a former international fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, believes China is making tremendous strides. But coal -- which makes up 80 percent of China's electricity generation -- will pose a challenge for decades to come. Many analysts believe the only short-term answer lies in developing technology to sequester and store CO2.

"There are things China can be doing to make it more efficient, but at the end of the day, that's not enough on climate change," Lewis said.

Laying the foundation for a new negotiating position

Climate envoy Stern is fond of saying that when it comes to an international emissions reduction treaty, countries are willing to do more than they are willing to agree to do.

It's a point he has made specifically about China. In testimony to Congress and elsewhere, he is constantly trying to explain the space that seems to lie between China's outward negotiating positions and what Stern describes as positive movement behind the scenes.

Publicly, China has demanded that the United States and other developed countries deliver 1 percent of their GDP to help poor nations -- a group into which China puts itself -- adapt to a low-fossil-fuel economy. Stern has called that expectation "untethered from reality." Meanwhile, in return for the financing, China promises nothing other than voluntary actions toward reducing its domestic emissions.

But just last month, China's National People's Congress introduced new laws to combat climate change, outlining a possible carbon intensity goal. While the resolution lacked specific targets and squarely noted China's right to continue developing, many environmental groups said it lays the groundwork for a new negotiating position at Copenhagen.

"China doesn't lack political will," said Qi Ye, deputy director of the Energy Foundation's sustainable energy program in Beijing. "What China does lack is capacity. That's not reflected in its foreign reserves or GDP."

Still, China's evident new wealth is what many U.S. politicians focus on when they travel there. In one recent congressional hearing, House lawmakers made a point of mentioning Beijing's Prada shop and superhighway. The implication: China can well afford to cut carbon and take care of its own technology needs.

China, of course, is partially responsible for the way U.S. lawmakers home in on the country's bounty. At every turn, Chinese leaders trumpet the story of their country's economic rise. Journalists have been jailed for writing about unemployment, and students locked up for blogging on rural poverty and corruption.

And while at U.N. climate talks China claims a seat at the table with other developing nations, it also appears keen in other international forums on flexing its muscle as the world power it is becoming. That was evident this month, when it struck back against President Obama's decision to impose trade penalties on Chinese tires.

Straddling 2 different identities

"China is walking a very fine line," said Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Michael Levi. "China is trying to have it both ways, because there really are two ways."

Jiaman Jin, executive director of China's Global Environment Institute, a nonprofit group that works closely with the Chinese central government to devise climate strategies, described her country as a recent college graduate.

"It's a little bit like if you look at a person in their 20s. They're starting to make money and develop their careers, but they're not that mature yet," she said. China, she maintained, despite its blossoming economy, is still developing its international presence and feeling out its global responsibilities.

Earlier this year, a leading Chinese think tank released a study showing how China's carbon dioxide emissions trajectory could slow, plateau and then peak in 2030. The study's release was significant, experts said, because the panel that produced it is essentially an arm of China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission. So more than just engaging in an academic exercise, leaders were floating a plan.

It's a plan that relies heavily on technology investments, and outlines how China could slow the growth of emissions after 2020 -- essentially getting dirty more slowly than it would without key energy policies -- and begin to reduce absolute emissions a decade after that.

That plan, though, could be complicated by the U.S. Senate's delay of domestic cap-and-trade legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated last week that a climate bill might have to wait until next year, raising hackles in Europe and elsewhere.

Can the U.S. lead in the negotiating dance?

Deborah Seligsohn, a Beijing consultant with the World Resources Institute's climate program, said she doesn't believe China will even start talking about targets until the United States establishes one.

"The question the Chinese are really asking the U.S. is what I'm calling the $13 trillion question," Seligsohn said. "They're saying, 'If we can see that path, then that is the path we would like to take. Show us. Don't tell us there's a low-carbon pathway in China. Show us how you do it in America.'"

Meanwhile, it isn't clear that U.S. lawmakers will accept China's plan. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) this month accused China of "taking advantage" of U.N. climate guidelines giving developing nations different responsibilities than industrialized ones to "cook the math in their favor."

If an absolute carbon cap is good for America, then it's good for China, as well, Sensenbrenner argued. As for any plan that allows China to spew more slowly and wait a decade or more before reducing emissions, he said, "That's not anything I'm willing to support, and I don't think the American people will support it."

Former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), president of the U.N. Foundation, disagreed. "We don't want to get hung up on saying the U.S. and China should reduce the same percentage and the same amount," he said. "We have different obligations." Lawmakers pressing for for absolutely equal responses from America and China, he argued, simply want to scuttle any chance for a climate pact.

Stern said he, too, is hopeful and optimistic that if China puts forward a solid plan, enough members of Congress will buy into it.

"If it was substantial and resulted in a major reduction in their emissions, yeah, I think they [Congress] would be OK with that."


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