63. China: Climate and Energy Policies

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Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change

China, with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants, is the world’s most populous country. As of 2008, it was also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, having just surpassed the United States. China’s increased greenhouse emissions are the result of rapid industrialization since the late 1970s and especially since 1990. CO2 is released in China by cement production, coal burning, underground coal fires, and increased burning of natural gas and petroleum for industrial processes and vehicles.

China intends to continue its rapid economic growth in the following ways: building several new coal-fired electricity generating plants a week; increasing end-use energy efficiency; purchasing a larger share of the world’s petroleum supply (China is the second-largest oil importer in the world, after the United States); building windmills and other sources of renewable energy; and creating dozens of nuclear power plants.

For more than a decade, China has been in a policy standoff with the United States over whether international legal agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, should impose similar greenhouse-gas emission restraints on developing countries such as China and on fully industrialized countries like the United States. China argues that developing countries should not face mandatory greenhouse gas emission caps, so that it can catch up in the industrialization process, while the United States argues that not restraining China and other developing nations equally would give those nations an unfair market advantage.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Modern industrial society, which first appeared in Europe in the late 1700s, depends on abundant, affordable energy. It has obtained most of this energy from fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum (oil), and natural gas. However, all these fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which, in turn, slows the loss of heat energy from Earth into space and acts as the primary cause of global climate change. Many countries-especially in Asia, Africa, and South America-are not as industrialized as those in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. These less-industrialized states, usually called developing countries, hope to achieve the economic success of the states that industrialized long ago and so acquire more wealth and power. China is the largest of these developing nations. Its economy, already the third largest in the world, is growing faster than that of any other large country (11% in the first quarter of 2007 alone). This rapid growth has been accompanied by pollution problems, greatly increased greenhouse emissions, increased dependence on foreign oil, environmental pollution and destruction, and other problems. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons (which damage the ozone layer). It is also, with Japan, one of the two largest importers of lumber cut from tropical forests, whose destruction is contributing to global climate change.

The world’s total greenhouse gas emissions have increased 75% since 1970; China’s have increased faster, growing by 80% from 1990 to 2007. China’s emissions intensity-the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of national economic production, measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-is among the world’s highest. This means that it uses energy less efficiently than most other countries. However, China’s energy intensity has actually decreased since 1990, thanks mostly to government-promoted energy efficiency measures. Scientists predict that China’s greenhouse gas emissions will rise between 65% and 80% from 2007 to 2020. Most of this increase will come from burning coal to generate electricity. Mainly because of coal-burning, China contains 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and about 300,000 people die in China every year as a result of air pollution.

China has officially acknowledged that the problem of global climate change is serious and real, and it has announced policies for dealing with the problem. To what extent these announced policies reflect actual intentions will be revealed over the next 10 to 20 years. China, like other nations, is particularly concerned that its anti-greenhouse gas emission commitments do not put it at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. On June 4, 2007, China released a 62-page document detailing its first-ever national climate change program. China rejected mandatory caps for greenhouse gas emissions and repeated its argument that countries with a long history of high emissions, rather than newcomers to the high-emissions category, such as itself, should take primary responsibility for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Policies for Mitigating Climate Change

In its 2007 plan and other energy directives released piecemeal since 2000, China has described a number of policies for mitigating climate change. The following is a sampling of these announced policies.

1. Close numerous inefficient electric generating plants by 2010, totaling about 8% of China’s electric capacity. These plants are to be replaced by new, more efficient plants.

2. Close inefficient factories making cement, aluminum, steel, and other materials; replace their capacity with larger, more efficient plants.

3. Mandate efficiency levels for buildings, industry, and appliances.

4. Produce 16% of China’s primary energy from renewable sources by 2020. Today, only 7% of China’s primary energy comes from renewables, including hydroelectric dams. China is building electricity-generating wind turbines at a rapid pace, but wind turbines still provided less than 1% of the country’s electricity as of 2007.

5. Quadruple nuclear electric capacity by 2020. Nuclear power provided about 2.3% of China’s electricity as of 2007. The official goal announced in February 2007 was to generate 9% of China’s electricity from nuclear power by 2015.

6. Increase forest area (a forestation) to absorb carbon dioxide.

7. In cooperation with the United States and European Union countries, study technologies for storing carbon dioxide generated by coal-burning power plants underground rather than releasing it into the air.

Impacts and Issues

China, like other countries, has already been affected by global climate change. For example, the water supply to northern China had decreased by 12% as of 2007. Scientists estimated in 2007 that China’s production of its three main crops (rice, wheat, and corn) might decrease to only 40% of its present level by 2050. China has ratified the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), both international treaties designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and so mitigate future climate change and its dangers. As a developing country, China is exempt until at least 2012 from emission limits described in the Kyoto Protocol. China does, however, participate in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), an aspect of the Kyoto Protocol designed to reward developed countries for helping developing countries reduce their greenhouse emissions. Under the CDM, developed countries are allowed to emit more greenhouse gases if they help developing countries emit less. As of 2007, CDM aid to China had accounted for 40% of all emissions credits given to developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol, more than any other country. Most of these credits were earned by destroying stocks of the greenhouse gas trifluoromethane (used in refrigeration and some manufacturing processes) and by making arrangements to capture and burn methane released from landfills. Methane causes 25 times more global warming, ton for ton, than carbon dioxide, while trifluoromethane causes 11,700 times more.

According to some experts, China’s ambitious targets for reducing pollution and rapidly building dams and nuclear power plants may be overoptimistic. A nuclear power plant takes approximately 10 years to build, while the number of sites where dams can be built is limited. Moreover, large dams are problematic as greenhouse-gas emission fighters because they can be major emitters of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide.

Some of China’s other climate-change mitigation goals also may be unrealistic for technical reasons. For example, in 2005 China declared a goal of reducing the energy intensity of its economy (the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP) in 2010 by 20%, relative to the level in 2005. This included a specific goal of reducing energy intensity by 4% in 2006, but energy intensity actually declined by only 1.23%.

Furthermore, official information in China has historically been unreliable at times, which may make it difficult for international observers to accurately judge China’s progress toward energy and climate policy goals.

Words to Know

Afforestation: Conversion of unforested land to forested land through planting, seeding, or other human interventions. Unforested land must have been unforested for at least 50 years for such intervention to qualify as afforestation; otherwise, it is termed reforestation.

Chlorfluorocarbons: Members of the larger group of compounds termed halocarbons. All halocarbons contain carbon and halons (chlorine, fluorine, or bromine). When released into the atmosphere, CFCs and other halocarbons deplete the ozone layer and have high global warming potential.

Fossil Fuels: Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.

Greenhouse Gases: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth’s surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth’s atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

Hydroelectric Power: Electric power derived from generators that are driven by hydraulic or water turbine engines.

Kyoto Protocol: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

Ozone Layer: The layer of ozone that begins approximately 9.3 mi (15 km) above Earth and thins to an almost negligible amount at about 31 mi (50 km) and shields Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The highest natural concentration of ozone (approximately 10 parts per million by volume) occurs in the stratosphere at approximately 15.5 mi (25 km) above Earth. The stratospheric ozone concentration changes throughout the year as stratospheric circulation changes with the seasons. Natural events such as volcanoes and solar flares can produce changes in ozone concentration, but man-made changes are of the greatest concern.

Renewable Energy: Energy obtained from sources that are renewed at once, or fairly rapidly, by natural or managed processes that can be expected to continue indefinitely. Wind, sun, wood, crops, and waves can all be sources of renewable energy.

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