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The math on Chinese emissions

By Derek Scissors - posted Monday, 28 September 2009

Chinese President Hu Jintao captured headlines recently, promising the PRC would “endeavour to cut carbon-dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020”. Descriptions have ranged from an important step toward emissions caps to vague and disappointing.

For those serious about climate change, China is the whole ballgame. If 2000-2006 trends in Chinese and American emissions held in 2007, the PRC’s emissions were nearly 15 per cent larger than America’s and pulling away fast.

The financial crisis altered everyone’s carbon trajectory but lending-induced resilience in China’s heavy industries means those emissions are resilient. Looking ahead, nearly two-thirds of the global emission increase by 2020 could be due to the PRC.


On the positive side, Hu’s speech is not the last word. Senior Chinese officials often initiate change with vague language, then subordinates clarify according to internal and external factors. This process has a natural conclusion: the December Copenhagen summit on climate change.

Major additional steps are hardly guaranteed but “notable” may not be the last word. Beijing will usually bargain and here seeks technology and international economic gains. Whether the US should trade is up to the Obama Administration and a Congress burdened with very poor emissions legislation.

The main problem is not deal-making but arithmetic. From 2000-2007, official Chinese GDP increased 1.5 times, a staggering achievement if accurate. Over the same period, the PRC’s fossil-fuel emissions more than doubled.

If the numbers are correct, emissions per unit of GDP fell roughly 20 per cent from 2000-2007, which might qualify as “notable”. Yet it coincides with annual emissions increasing almost 1 billion tons.

Projecting forward is more discouraging. Say China achieves 8 per cent average annual GDP growth to 2020 (or reports it has). Say it deftly cuts 2000-2007 annual emissions growth in half, to 6 per cent. That would constitute a large drop in emissions per unit of GDP and a complete victory on that score.

At the same time, 6 per cent annual growth to 2020 is the worst scenario to be found on China’s emissions. If you believe carbon emissions are extremely dangerous, 6 per cent growth to 2020 is a complete disaster.


The issue is not whether specific commitments are forthcoming from Beijing but how much the freight train of Chinese emissions can be slowed, promises aside. To cut emissions growth in half is simultaneously a powerful accomplishment and an utter failure. That quandary, not Hu’s speech, is where attention should be focused.

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First published by The Heritage Foundation on September 23, 3009.

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About the Author

Derek Scissors, PhD, is Research Fellow in Asia Economic Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation in the United States.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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