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Magazine / ISSUES & IDEAS

China Must Do More On Climate Change

China is trying to convince outside observers that it is making great strides toward curbing global warming.

May 30, 2009

BEIJING -- The first thing that strikes a visitor to the Taiyanggong natural-gas-fired, electrical co-generating plant here is the low hum. The facility's two giant General Electric turbines produce only 55 decibels of sound, the noise level of a room air conditioner.

But it was clean, not quiet, power China sought when it built this plant in 2007 in northeast Beijing. Each year, Taiyanggong produces as much electricity as 78 low-efficiency, coal-fired boilers, and thereby cuts CO2 emissions by 60 percent. In addition, the project co-generates steam for heating a large portion of China's capital.

Little wonder that Taiyanggong is China's showcase generating plant. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in February. But such Chinese endeavors, impressive as they may be, are deceptive.


With natural gas costing at least four times more than coal in China, plants such as Taiyanggong are a prohibitively expensive means of producing electricity. Even though Taiyanggong is 13 percent more efficient than the best-operating coal-powered generating facility, its high cost dictates that, nationwide, China continues to build dirtier coal plants at a pace of nearly two per week.

With the governments of the world meeting in Bonn on June 1 to begin the stretch run toward forging a new global climate pact by the end of the year, China is trying to convince outside observers that it is making great strides toward curbing global warming.

The reality, however, is that China still adds more CO2 to the atmosphere each year than any other nation in the world. Moreover, Beijing rejects any binding international cap on such emissions and claims the right to continue to increase its release of greenhouse gases, albeit more slowly than before.

Operating on the assumption that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar, the Obama administration has chosen to laud China's efforts rather than criticize its lack of ambition. Such a strategy makes for good diplomacy but bad environmental science. Unless China can be persuaded to begin reducing its CO2 emissions soon, there is little prospect of halting global warming.

Chinese officials like to change the subject when they're confronted with complaints about the country's greenhouse-gas emissions. They point out that on a cumulative basis since 1800, China's emissions amount to a third of what the U.S. has produced. They note that the average Chinese still generates less than a quarter of the annual CO2 emissions that an average American produces.

Such arguments are disingenuous. To the rapidly warming Earth's atmosphere, it matters little whether a greenhouse gas was released in 1909 or 2009, or whether it was generated by one American or four Chinese. Without a reduction in China's emissions, the world is going to become an uncomfortably warm place.

Beijing is now the fourth-largest producer of wind power after the United States, Germany, and Spain.

This forecast is not meant to slight Beijing's recent efforts to curb its carbon emissions. In many ways, it has done more than Washington has. China has fuel-economy standards that are more stringent than those in the U.S.: It required new vehicles to average 36.7 miles per gallon in 2008; new U.S. standards will require only 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

China has also embraced renewable energy. It gets about 17 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar; the United States derives only 9 percent of its power from clean sources. China is already the world's leading producer of solar panels and solar water heaters. In 2008, Beijing doubled its installed wind capacity for the fourth straight year and is now the fourth-largest producer of wind power after the United States, Germany, and Spain. And China leads the world in dam-generated power.

Recognizing that conservation is the cleanest source of new energy, China is devoting a significant portion of its current economic stimulus spending to improving energy efficiency, especially in buildings.

Yet this impressive effort masks broader, more-troubling developments. China is still a woefully inefficient user of power. It requires four times as much energy as the U.S. needs to generate the same amount of economic growth, and nine times as much as Japan does. The energy intensity of the Chinese economy -- the amount of power needed to add a dollar to economic growth -- recently reversed itself after improving for decades. Between 2002 and 2005, energy demand here grew faster than economic growth, as investment in heavy manufacturing soared.

In the run-up to the international climate-change summit in Copenhagen in December, China's efforts and its shortcomings deserve special scrutiny.

In climate negotiations to date, Beijing has proposed a business-as-usual approach, offering only to reduce the energy intensity of its economy, which would effectively return the country to the energy-efficiency path it was on before 2002. If climate scientists are right about the narrow window of opportunity available to avoid catastrophic global warming, the world needs more from China.

The place to start is power generation. China still derives about 70 percent of its electricity from coal-fired generating plants. Although the country is the world's leading builder of more-efficient, less-polluting coal facilities, only about three in five of those plants use clean technologies.

Furthermore, wrote Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor at the University of Michigan, and David Sandalow, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a paper earlier this year, "specific problems often result in emissions far above the level that would be anticipated from plant technology alone.... Many operators pur-chase and burn low-quality coal that undermines the efficiency capabilities of the advanced technologies in their plants."

To improve its operations, China needs clean technology and better management of that capability once it is in place. The low-carbon energy lab at Tsinghua University here recently formed an alliance with Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States to begin developing such equipment. More collaboration is needed, and scientists must work more closely with utilities, steelmakers, and others to ensure that design meshes with function.

But such efforts take time, and China needs clean technology now. To obtain that equipment from the West, Beijing would have to find the money to pay for it. Furthermore, the intellectual-property rights of the companies that own the technology must be protected so that it will not be copied and in turn sold to third countries.

This will not be easy. A business coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some major U.S. multinational companies has warned the Obama administration about giving away proprietary green technologies. And with China running a $266 billion trade surplus with the United States last year, Congress is in no mood to pay for climate-friendly equipment for the Chinese.

Beijing must recognize that as long as it is sitting on $1.9 trillion in foreign reserves, the world will expect it to buy its own clean technology. Similarly, given China's abysmal record in protecting intellectual property, some sort of international arbitration or insurance scheme must be set up to guarantee technology holders' their rights.

More broadly, China needs to accelerate its transition from an export-driven and manufacturing-dependent economy to a more domestically oriented, service-based model. Because Beijing seems reluctant to make this shift, it may need the encouragement of Western trade and exchange-rate policies that will make producing steel and dirty exports less attractive. But such leverage will have limited value as long as the Chinese do not commit themselves to a cleaner model of economic development.

The Taiyanggong plant and similar projects demonstrate that Beijing can curb its emissions. But much more is needed from China. And time is short.

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