The ability of the international community and its institutions to adroitly address climate change is no small task; and China, the world’s largest emitter and on the fastest course to increase emissions, is the most important factor in how the international community deals with climate change. Therefore, how China deals with GHG emissions domestically is worth paying special attention to.
Those who have been paying attention know of China’s goal to reduce energy intensity by 20% from 2005 levels by the end of 2010 (all part of China’s 11th Five-Year Plan). Fewer are aware that such a reduction would be more similar to keeping with China’s historic energy intensity reduction from 1980 to 2005, than a radical departure from it (more on that here). But recently, China has struggled to sustain its booming economic growth and simultaneously cut energy intensity. In the background, the foreground, or the center of all this are international climate change negotiations.
And that brings us to the recent UNFCCC negotiations in Tianjin and statements from China’s NDRC Deputy Director Xie Zhenhua, who stated at a press conference in Tianjin on October 6, that China had reduced its energy intensity by 15.6% at the end of 2009. This new statistic places the 20% reduction by 2011 goal well within reach.
Two respected and frequently cited individuals, Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations and Alex Wang of NRDC China (not to be confused with NDRC), recently commented on China’s energy goals and achievements in light of China’s new statistic and the Tianjin climate talks.
Mr. Levi specializes in international energy policy and is intimately familiar with international climate negotiations. Mr. Wang, as director of NRDC’s China environmental law project, has an intimate understanding of how China’s government and its institutions operate with regard to implementing environmental law and policy, and has worked closely with Chinese NGOs to examine the transparency of pollution information at the local government level (more on that here). But as their recent comments evince, they view China’s efforts and statements on reductions very differently in light of the Tianjin negotiations.
Michael Levi is very skeptical of China’s stated reductions and the means it used to supposedly achieve them.
[blogs.cfr] This past March, China announced that it had cut its energy intensity by 14.38% from 2005 to 2009. Several critics noted that Chinese energy and GDP statistics suggested that the cut had actually been only 8.2%. Now NDRC vice-Minister Xie Zhenhua says, in a statement today, that the 2005-2009 cut was actually 15.6%. I hope I’ll be excused if, like the Chinese experts I’ve spoken with in the last week, I come to the conclusion that these numbers have become pretty meaningless.
The seemingly arbitrary revisions to the figures also reinforce the need for some sort of international process for reviewing countries’ emissions claims. This is what the Copenhagen Accord called “international consultation and analysis”. Yet reports from Tianjin indicate that China is trying to back away from that commitment precisely when it’s needed most.
Alex Wang’s comments are more laudatory and focus on the relativity extreme measures China has taken. And while Mr. Wang has commented before on why transparency is important in the climate change context, it does not come up in this recent post.
[Greenlaw] I am in Tianjin this week for the climate talks, and the mood, compared to Copenhagen, has been subdued. In contrast, all around China government officials and factory owners are working themselves into a frenzy to meet their share of China’s 20 percent energy intensity reduction target.
The headlines have been stunning. Across the country, a massive effort has been mobilized to eliminate backwards production capacity, control growth in energy intensive industries (like steel and cement), and a variety of other efforts. In August, China released a list of over 2,000 factories with outdated equipment that had to be shut down by the end of September. Anping County in Hebei Province cut power to hospitals, schools and homes for 10 days in an effort to save energy. The process has not been polished in all respects. And reactions, like the forced blackouts, are clearly unintended outcomes. But, China’s process is no doubt rushing forward at breakneck pace on an unprecedented scale. And, despite the unintended consequences, it is hard to argue that this is not a serious effort that is having significant impact.
Clearly, the impetus for both Mr. Levi’s and Mr. Wang’s comments was China’s fresh data on energy intensity and the context of the Tianjin negotiations. Their respected choices to focus on one aspect, or narrative, of what the new data represents (problems with transparency v. commitment to policy implementation) are not important in and of themselves, because both are equally valid points to make.
What is important, is how these separate narratives regarding China’s climate actions and intentions play-out in international negotiations. While it is nice to hope that our international institutions are sophisticated enough to give credence to both narratives and all the subtleties involved, that may not be the case. And so I ask, which competing narrative will best optimize the chance for a meaningful international agreement?
As the most important party at the table, China’s actions, intentions, and the ability to verify emissions is pivotal to international climate negotiations. And how the international community views China’s efforts will significantly influence the type of deal that is finally reached.
UPDATE: Alex Wang has a reply to this post entitled, “What to make of China’s efforts to meet its energy intensity targets” at NRDC’s Switchboard and also cross-posted at the Huffington Post.