The Economist on China and climate change


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Some important and sobering information from a recent article:

China’s impact on the climate, though, is unique. Its economy is not only large but also resource-hungry.

The country’s energy use is… gargantuan. This is in part because, under Mao, the use of energy was recklessly profligate. China’s consumption of energy per unit of GDP tripled in 1950-78—an unprecedented “achievement”. In the early 1990s, at the start of its period of greatest growth, China was still using 800 tonnes of coal equivalent (tce, a unit of energy) to produce $1m of output, far more than other developing countries. Energy efficiency has since improved; China used 390tce per $1m in 2009. But that was still more than the global average of 300tce and far more than Germany, which used only 173tce.

Despite a huge hydroelectric programme, most of this energy comes from burning coal on a vast scale. China currently burns about half the world’s supplies. In 2006 it surpassed America in carbon-dioxide emissions from energy. By 2014 or 2015 it will emit twice America’s total. Between 1990 and 2050 its cumulative emissions from energy will amount to some 500 billion tonnes—roughly the same as those of the whole world from the beginning of the industrial revolution to 1970. And the total is what matters. The climate reacts to the stock of carbon, not to annual rises.

These emissions are adding to a build-up of carbon already pushed to unprecedented heights by earlier industrialisations. When Britain began the process in the 18th century, the atmosphere’s carbon-dioxide level was 280 parts per million (ppm). When Japan was industrialising fastest in the late 1950s, it had risen a bit, to 315ppm. This year the level hit 400ppm. Avoiding dangerous climate change is widely taken to mean keeping below 450ppm, although there are significant uncertainties surrounding this figure. At current rates that threshold will be reached in 2037. China is likely to be the largest emitter between now and then.

About a quarter of China’s carbon emissions is produced making goods for export. If the carbon embodied in those goods were marked against the ledgers of the importing countries China would look a little less damaging, the rich world a lot less virtuous. But even allowing for that, China is not playing catch-up any more. It is doing more damage to the stability of the global climate than any other country.

The claim that stabilizing the atmospheric concentration at 450 ppm will be enough to keep temperature increases below 2˚C is dubious. In James Hansen et al. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?“, they conclude that: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm”.

Doing that would require much more aggressive action than what this article suggests.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

alena August 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

I thought the article was a bit superficial, but it did present the scope of the problem. I liked the opening quote, “Hell is a city much like London–a populous and a smoky city,” by Percy Shelley in 1819. Some of the cities in China that I visited with my son aptly fit that description. It would be great if China became the world’s leader in environmental policy.

. August 26, 2013 at 11:59 am
. August 26, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Nature Geoscience
China’s carbon conundrum

Ye Qi, Tong Wu, Jiankun He & David A. King
Nature Geoscience 6, 507–509 (2013)

Published online 27 June 2013

. August 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Nature | Column: World View
China’s citizens must act to save their environment

The country’s air-pollution crisis offers a lesson in the power of civil society, says Qiang Wang

Beijing’s air pollution is sometimes so bad that citizens walk the streets wearing masks, and new arrivals immediately feel their throats rasping. With record levels of smog enveloping major Chinese cities, air pollution — especially the fine particles with diameters of less than 2.5 micrometres, known as PM2.5, which penetrate deep into the lungs — is replacing food safety and clean drinking water as a key theme for Chinese lawmakers, and the nation has finally laid out a plan to tackle air pollution. By 2015, the government aims to reduce the concentration of PM2.5 by 5%, of PM10 by 10% and of other pollutants by up to 10%, in 117 cities in 13 key regions of the country.

But such initiatives, although timely and right, will not make a fundamental difference if practical steps are not taken: China needs to set a national cap on coal use and find a way to limit emissions from cars. So far, Beijing has been the only city to put plans in place to cap coal consumption, at 15 million tonnes a year by 2015. However, even if the other 116 cities named in the government’s plan restrict their use of coal, the effects on air quality will be limited — coal-intensive industries will simply move to other areas in China. China should therefore adopt a national plan to cap coal use, and this should be based on the national total energy-use plan it issued in January, which aims to keep total energy use to 4 billion tonnes of coal equivalent per year by 2015.

anon August 26, 2013 at 10:03 pm

China is why we are omnifucked
No matter what the US and Europe do, all the China coal burning will fuck the climate

. May 20, 2017 at 2:21 pm

But in China the government, and increasingly the public, see it as a real danger, responsible for rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities as well as for aggravating droughts in the north, floods in the south and, as it now turns out, the omnipresent smog. Some people wonder whether Mr Trump’s indifference might reduce China’s willingness to take action against climate change. Why bother if the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases appears to have lost faith in the cause? Fortunately, there is no sign that China, the biggest emitter, is wavering.

The government is spooked by an accumulation of research showing just how vulnerable the country is to damage caused by climate change. A study published in 2013 by the World Bank and the OECD concluded that economic losses in Guangzhou, in southern China, would be greater than in any other city in the world. In 2015 the government’s chief meteorologist warned of “serious threats” to China’s rivers, food supplies and infrastructure as a result of global warming, which he said had been greater than the global average.

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