China’s carbon intensity reductions continue

By Ajay Gambhir

A fortnight ago a journalist at New Scientist asked me if I’d seen the latest report by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency (PBL) and Joint Research Centre (JRC) on last year’s global CO2 emissions figures. He wanted some quick reactions on analysis that showed China’s emissions per unit of economic output (its “emissions intensity”) had declined by over 4% in 2012, compared to 2011 levels. The following analysis is based on my response.

In absolute terms, China’s emissions actually increased by about 3% in 2012, according to the PBL/JRC analysis. But its GDP increased by almost 8% over the course of 2012, so a 3% increase in emissions means between a 4 and 5% decrease in CO2 emissions intensity.

This compares with the 3.5% annual CO2 intensity reduction target in the 12th Five Year Plan, which covers the period 2011-2015 inclusive. 3.5% is the average annual rate of CO2 intensity reductions required over the period 2005-2020, in order that China meets its Copenhagen Accord target (40-45% reduction on 2005 levels by 2020).

What’s particularly interesting is that these reductions have come largely from an increase in renewable energy displacing coal (as opposed, for example, to the offshoring of carbon-intensive industrial output) – lots of hydro, wind and increasingly solar is being deployed in the Chinese power sector. Whilst no form of electricity generation source avoids at least one of the potential problems of local environmental impacts, high costs or variability of output, the increasing share of near-zero-carbon sources in the generation mix gives grounds for optimism in an economy where coal is still dominant (and about 1 coal-fired power station is still being built per week).

However, the challenge to reduce China’s emissions intensity in line with international action that would limit global warming to about 2°C above pre-industrial levels remains a major one. The analysis that I and colleagues at Imperial College and IIASA undertook in 2011 indicated that, if China grew as then projected, with a 6-fold increase in GDP between 2010 and 2050, and its emissions declined to a level of around 3 GtCO2 (equivalent to 1.7 tonnes of CO­2 per person) by 2050, compared to about 8 GtCO­2 in 2010, it would have to reduce its emissions intensity by 6-7% per year on average over that period. This gives an indication of the size of the transformation required.

Also worthy of note is the uncertainty around emissions levels in China. The PBL/JRC analysis has CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement rising from about 9.6 GtCO2 in 2011 to 9.9 GtCO2 in 2012, a 3% rise. By contrast the Global Carbon Project’s estimates, released on 18th November, show Chinese emissions rising from 9.1 GtCO2 in 2011 to 9.6 GtCO2 in 2012 – an almost 6% rise. The emissions in these two estimates are not directly comparable, largely because the former includes emissions from international aviation and shipping attributed to China, whereas the latter doesn’t. But estimating emissions is not an exact science (with PBL/JRC noting that there is a 10% range of uncertainty in the Chinese emissions figures), and these two different perspectives tell two different stories.

Nevertheless, during this period of still-strong economic growth it is interesting to see that China’s economy continues to get less carbon intensive. In fact, according to analysis by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) earlier this month, China’s CO2 intensity goals for the period 2005 to 2020 mean it is being more ambitious than a range of other countries including the USA and EU27. The challenge now is to meet the 2020 target and then increase the rate of carbon intensity reductions thereafter.

The full New Scientist article is available here.

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