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Carbon Reduction: A Challenge for Both China and US

Dec 22, 2014
  • Shen Dingli

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

At the Xi-Obama summit in Forbidden City last month in the wake of the Beijing APEC meeting, both leaders made their bold commitment to climate change. The Joint Sino-U.S. Statement on Climate Change, issued on November 12th, the U.S. agreed to improve its effort to mitigate the threat of global warming, by reducing its emission of carbon dioxide by 26% to 28% by 2025, compared with its level of 2005. The Chinese side agreed that, by 2030, it shall reach its peak of carbon emission, and raise the use of non-fossil energy to about 20% of its then primary energy consumption.

These commitments represent a significant challenge to both Washington and Beijing, and without serious implementation of respective commitment and significant cooperation between the two sides, they run a risk that their targets may fail to realize.

For America, the Obama administration already committed to cut 17% of carbon emission from 2005-2020 in 2009 before the UN COP15 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. This action reversed the George W. Bush administration’s policy to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Given the pressure of global warming, the current U.S. government has taken an important and necessary decision to address the problem, while catalyzing a worldwide movement to follow suit, so various countries would, hopefully, pay their own contribution to combat the common threat. The White House has especially eyed those newly developing economies such as China and India. Because of India’s quick economic rise, Beijing and New Delhi will become the new major emitters.

For its part, before the Copenhagen summit China also made a courageous commitment to reducing carbon intensity by 40%-45% from 2005 to 2020 (lowering its carbon emission per unit of grass domestic production by 40%-45% with the aforementioned period). At that time, this was quite an aggressive commitment Beijing could make. However, it could not entice the U.S. government enough, given the speed of China’s economic development that expanded three fold from 2000-2012. Should its energy structure and efficiency remain inadequate, China’s carbon emission could increase some 800% to 900% from 2005 to 2020 even if China would fulfill its promise of reducing carbon intensity.

In Copenhagen, China and other countries of the BASIC group rejected the U.S. pressure to make further commitment. China’s decision made sense as its total emission at that time was still behind that of the U.S., let alone its per capita level. China’s aggregated emission in history was even way behind. Nevertheless, given the rapid economic expansion ever since, China’s total economic output is now some 60% of the U.S. Presently China’s carbon emission has accounted for some 27% of the world total, doubling that of America, and its per capita emission is almost half of the U.S. already.

Five years after the Copenhagen summit, China has developed both acute necessity and more resources to act proactively on carbon reduction. On one hand, along with its carbon emissions, China is also producing massive amount of pollutants of all sorts, seriously impairing its own sustainability. It is time to revamp its development model by being environmentally conscious. To be honest, capturing and sequestrating carbon and other sources of pollutants fundamentally serves the interests to China in terms of social stability and regime legitimacy. On the other hand, given China’s keen interest in investing in clean and renewable energy over the past decade, it is now in a much better shape to commit deeper cut of carbon intensity.

By any measure, the Xi-Obama joint commitment to climate change is nontrivial. While China has committed to a peak emission in 16 years, the U.S. has aspired to attain even deeper absolute reduction, both warranting more restructuring of their energy consumption. Plus the recent EU commitment to reduce its carbon emission by 40% from 1990-2030, most of the major economies of the world are well positioned to cut their green house gas emissions in the next 16 years.

To turn its energy strategy green and clean, China surely must reduce its dependence on coal. However the use of oil and gas still generates green house gas, neither completely green nor renewable sources of energy. Therefore it has to improve its own carbon capture and sequestration technology while still using fossil fuels. A more essential approach is to turn to a carbon-free strategy, such as hydroelectric, wind power and nuclear energy etc. But given China’s population scale and projection of economic growth, the Bloomberg has estimated that the country has to build 1,000 nuclear power reactors, or 500,000 aerogenerators, or 50,000 solar farms, to meet its target by 2030. Too daunting and unrealistic a task, it does offer both challenge and opportunity for China, and for China-U.S. cooperation.

As the U.S. presently only emits 13% of the green house gas of the world, Obama’s reduction plan is expected to be challenged in Congress, especially after next January. With or without China to fulfill its commitment, divided American politics will likely to make it difficult to attain a bipartisan consensus to take the lead in curtailing carbon emissions, when China seems to be free before it touches its CO2 ceiling by 2030. Obviously, if China could not keep its words it will help fuel the U.S. political debate on the necessity of a unilateral cut. Reciprocally, if the U.S.fails to fulfill its cut by 2025, it will be hard to find fault on China if the latter could not deliver its promise by 2030.

Despite the challenge, the stake is high. The IEA has projected that by 2040, China would invest $4.6t to upgrade its energy industry, including $1.77t on its nuclear and renewable sector, the U.S. business has a good chance to take a share. Without concern for another reelection, President Obama will be keen now to leave enough fingerprints on his presidency, especially since the Democrats lost the recent mid-term election. Then, COP 21 Paris presents him and all leaders an important chance to make a historical breakthrough; the Joint Sino-U.S. Statement on Climate Change is well prepared for such a success.

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