A Nuanced View at the Latest CO2 Emission Figures from China

China is probably in for another round of bashing for its rising emisions. According to a new report by the US Department of Energy and another recent report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, global CO2 emissions rose by almost 6% in 2010 compared to 2009 – an almost unprecedented jump. So the world is basically flooring the accelerator while approaching the cliff.

A part of this increase came from the economic recovery, emissions had decreased by 1% in 2009, but a large part also came from the rapid growth in the rapidly industrialising developing countries, which had come through the recession largely unscathed. CO2 emissions in China jumped by a full 10% last year and the total is now 50% higher than in the USA.

China also has the largest population in the world, four times that of the USA, so one may argue that they are entitled to also having the highest emissions. I used to tell people that Chinese per person emissions were still only half of those in Germany and a quarter of those in the USA. But even in per person terms the picture is changing rapidly. Chinese per capita emissions now stand at 6.8t, which is the same as in Italy and more than those of France and Spain, which are at 5.9 and 6.3t respectively. Germany’s emissions are at 10t per person and US emissions at 16.9t.

The situation in the West’s other favourite bogeyman is somewhat different. Emissions in India also rose by 9% in 2010, but per person emissions are still only 1.5t.

Nevertheless, a somewhat more nuanced view is in order. In contrast to other countries China is taking ambitious action to reduce its emissions. In recent years it shut down hundreds of industrial facilities because they did not meet the government’s energy efficiency targets and China now has installed more wind power than any other country. According to the Climate Action Tracker, China is well on its way to meet its Copenhagen pledge of reducing the emission intensity of its economy by 40-45%, which translates into a reduction of 580 to 800 Mt CO2 below business as usual in 2020.

One also has to add that the climate problem is not caused by the annual flows, it is caused by the total stock that has accumulated in the atmosphere over time. And the cumulative historic emissions from China are still relatively small.

And one has to remember that most industrialised countries haven’t done their homework for two decades. The UN climate convention from 1992 commits industrialised countries to take the lead in combating climate change. As a first step it called on them to stabilise their emissions at 1990 levels by 2000. Then came the Kyoto Protocol with its binding reduction commitments. Which the USA did not ratify and in many other Western countries emissions have also continued to increase. So the demand that industrialised countries should take the lead remains as valid as ever.

Instead, those same countries that haven’t done their homework for two decades are hiding behind the emissions increase in developing countries as an excuse to further delay taking action. In particular the USA, which basically hasn’t done anything in 20 years to reduce its emissions, is demanding binding commitments by all major economies as a precondition for committing itself. Fact is, even if China and the rest did agree to binding commitments, thanks to the rabid anti-science stance of many in the Republican party a new climate treaty would hardly get the necessary 2/3 majority in the Senate, no matter what it looked like. The US government also has yet to take any significant action to meet its (woefully inadequate) Copenhagen pledge.

Nevertheless, the rapid emission increases in developing countries are becoming increasingly depressing to watch. According to the Climate Action Tracker, while China is decreasing the CO2 intensity of its economy the faster than expected economic growth will probably have the result that 2020 emissions will be 1 Gt higher than previously expected.

The Durban climate conference is not going to bring a breakthrough. Countries are dug in too deeply in their trenches right now. But Durban urgently needs to at least adopt a negotiating mandate for a new comprehensive agreement to be adopted by 2015 at the latest. And in addition to rapid decarbonisation by the industrialised countries this agreement will also need to include strongly enhanced efforts by the rapidly industrialising countries.

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