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Ten things about China and climate change

By Derek Scissors - posted Monday, 9 November 2009

Many global environmental debates are chiefly about China. In the past, it has been acid rain made in the PRC but falling elsewhere. Eventually, the conversation will shift to water shortages and diversion that have already displaced millions and may eventually threaten conflict with some of China's neighours. As the international community lurches toward the Copenhagen climate change conference, the main topic is carbon emissions and climate change. Again, the debate will centre on the PRC.

The size of the country means conflicting processes exist simultaneously. Critics of Chinese ecologic and economic practice can point to ongoing devastation at the same time defenders point to important remedial programs. China and climate change is a topic broad and substantial enough for several books, but there are vital statistics that must be included in any conversation. These point to the PRC as by far the most powerful force, now and for the indefinite future, driving carbon emissions. The reason is coal.

Numbers don't lie

1. While the data can be presented in many different ways, China almost surely leads the world in raw spending on "green energy." The PRC is allocating an impressive amount of resources to cleaning its environment as well as building wind turbines, solar plants, and similar facilities.


2. China also leads in coal production and consumption. In 2000, China's official figure for coal output was 880 million tons and dropping; in 2008, it was 2.62 billion tons and still climbing. The PRC's ecologic footprint is often characterised as a natural result of a large population and a growing economy. In coal, it is more than that:

  • China's share of world GDP: over 7 per cent and climbing;
  • China's share of world population: about 20 per cent and declining;
  • China's share of world coal use: over 40 per cent and climbing.

3. Diversification from coal has failed and will continue to fail. Coal now provides 70 per cent of the PRC's energy and almost 80 per cent of its electricity, with both figures higher than they were a decade ago. These shares may barely shift for decades to come. For better or for worse, transportation is not particularly important in Chinese energy use, so oil is far less important than coal. And while the PRC has a much-touted goal of 15 per cent of energy from renewables, US government projections have the proportion of Chinese electricity generated by coal remaining at 75 per cent in 2030.

4. The resulting figures are ugly: The PRC's coal-fired power capacity is set to increase from 350 gigawatts at the start of 2006 to 950 gigawatts at the end of 2030. In 2006, coal use in China's electricity sector was 20 per cent higher than in America's electricity sector. In 2030, coal use in China's electricity sector is forecast to be 135 per cent higher than in America's electricity sector

5. Even taking into consideration the planned retirement of outdated plants and their replacement with new, somewhat cleaner versions, use of coal will have a predictable effect on greenhouse gases. Prior to the recent financial crisis, the PRC's carbon emissions were almost 15 per cent larger than America's and pulling away.>

China could cut its 2000-2007 rate of emission expansion in half, thus meeting its stated goal of sharply reducing emissions per unit of GDP, yet still exceed the worst case scenario projected by those preaching Chinese responsibility. A year after the global financial shock, Credit Lyonnaise has forecast that China alone will generate 63 per cent of the world's emissions increase over the next decade.


6. Such data prompted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson to note that "the central parts of the [EPA] chart are that US action alone will not impact world CO2 levels." Actually, US action alone will coincide with much higher world CO2 levels.

7. It is unreasonable to expect the PRC to follow the US on climate change. China has rejected American leadership on security issues in Iran and North Korea and on human rights matters in Sudan and Burma. In economics, the PRC's existing and anticipated coal dependence dwarfs America's, making a serious adjustment far more difficult.

Moreover, China does not compete in most goods and services with the US but with other suppliers to the American market, such as Mexico. These nations' - not American - climate change restrictions are more pertinent to Beijing's decision making. And the PRC has steadfastly avoided the Western European cap-and-trade experiment (wisely so, as the EU has failed to cut emissions while harming its economy). That China will follow an American lead in cutting greenhouse gases flies in the face of all available evidence.

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First published on November 3 , 2009 by The Heritage Foundation.

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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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