China Environmental News Digest

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

China’s challenge to the Kyoto Protocol

Until China’s competing policies of maintaining record growth while protecting the environment are reconciled, it will continue to pose a considerable challenge to global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases

Commentary by Elizabeth Wishnick for ISN Security Watch (11/12/06)

The International Energy Agency (IEA) on 6 November released a report, The World Energy Outlook, projecting that China will overtake the US in carbon dioxide emissions by 2009, a decade earlier than previously anticipated. The IEA’s revised estimate highlights the growing challenge that China’s robust economic growth poses for global efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The IEA re-evaluated China’s contribution to global greenhouse gases in light of the 13 percent annual increase in its coal use since 2003. China relies on coal for 67 percent of its energy, and nearly 70 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector. Construction of new coal-fired plants has expanded exponentially to support China’s economic growth and increasingly urbanized population, who now live in cities with record air pollution.

The Kyoto Protocol distinguishes between developed (Annex I) states, which are obligated to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to approximately 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012, and developing (Annex II) countries, which are not subject to these rules. Annex I states may offset their emissions by participating in emissions trading among themselves or by contributing to a Clean Development Mechanism and providing green technology to Annex II countries.

Although the US accounts for 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Bush administration opted out of the treaty in large part because China and other industrializing developing states such as India are not required to comply with Kyoto emissions limits. Australia, currently the second largest per capita emitter, has refused to participate for the same reason.

Drafted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol only was entered into force on 16 February 2005, after Russia signed it. Russian participation meant that 35 countries representing 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 1990 would be covered by the treaty.

Although China signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, Beijing contends that requiring developing countries to adhere to the same limits as developed states would be unfair given the great discrepancy in income and per capita emissions. Some Chinese officials also assert that the US and other developed countries benefit by shifting polluting industries offshore to China. Such arguments fail to address the major point: China’s contribution to global warming is expanding rapidly to everyone’s detriment, including the Chinese people.

In mid-November, representatives from 180 states met in Nairobi to discuss the future of the Kyoto targets after 2012. The group failed to agree on a timetable for future cuts. China and India remain adamantly opposed to making developing countries subject to future limits, a position that is unlikely to change unless the US and Australia join the treaty.

Despite the Democrats’ victory in US congressional elections, the Bush administration is not expected to rethink its position on the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, Washington is focusing on developing clean technologies through the Asia-Pacific Partnership, formed in 2005 with Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea.

In contrast to the US market-oriented strategy, France has urged Europeans to take tough measures to achieve broader compliance with the Kyoto Protocol. On 13 November, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin suggested that the EU should impose punitive carbon taxes on imports from non-signatories.

Achieving wider adherence to the Kyoto Protocol represents an important first step, but compliance with the treaty holds a much greater challenge. The EU as a whole is expected to achieve a 9 percent cut in emissions, 1 percent lower than its 8 percent target. A European emissions trading program made this possible despite significant emissions increases in some individual European countries (Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain).

Other signatories have been less successful in meeting their targets. Canada, for example, experienced a 26 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions over 1990 levels, while Japan saw an 8.1 percent rise. Although the Kyoto emissions limits have proven difficult to meet for many developed countries, at least they provide a benchmark and involve global accountability.

China’s voluntary efforts have thus far been insufficient, particularly in terms of implementation and enforcement. In response to mounting concerns about the projected rise in its greenhouse gas emissions, Chinese officials note their concerted effort to place environmental protection at the top of their policy agenda. The 11th Five-Year Plan for 2006-2010 sets voluntary targets for the next five years: reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent and lowering discharges of pollutants by 10 percent. However, many targets for 2006 will not be met, and a November 2006 report by the Chinese State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) acknowledged that air and water pollution were worsening.

Such efforts also reflect the growing realization that environmental costs are chipping away at China’s economic growth. SEPA Deputy Director Zhu Guangyao told a June 2006 press conference that pollution could cause economic losses of up to 10 percent of GDP. Public concern over pollution also threatens social stability, as environmental protests have become more frequent throughout China in recent years.

China’s position on the Kyoto Protocol stems from the Chinese government’s mutually contradictory policies: maintaining record economic growth and expanding prosperity, while protecting the environment and preserving social stability. Until these competing priorities are reconciled more realistically, China will continue to pose a considerable challenge to global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

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