An international task force is presenting today, Nov. 12, a proposed low-carbon five-year plan to the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development in Beijing. Sir Gordon Conway, co-chairman of the task force, describes some its findings in today's Financial Times. He notes that the Chinese leadership is acutely concerned about the climate problem because of the country's vulnerability to adverse warming effects, its fear of being locked into outdated technologies that will be a liability in a lower-carbon world, and indeed a desire to be global leaders in developing green technology.
The CCICED task force outlines three carbon-emissions scenarios, and the pessimistic ones are more than a little disconcerting. The business-as-usual scenario has China emitting 13 billion tons of carbon per year in 2050, which is almost twice as much as the whole world is emitting right now. A lower-carbon scenario reduces the country's emissions to 9 billion tons by 2050, which is still almost 30 percent higher than the world's today. A third "enhanced low-carbon scenario" gets China's annual emissions down to 5 billion t/y by mid-century, 30 percent below the present-day world's.
According to Gordon, "the Chinese believe significant reductions can be achieved by decoupling growth from greenhouse gas emissions, as Sweden has done." Their plan, he says, "is to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 75-85 percent by 2050," by means of industrial restructuring and efficiency gains. The energy mix will become steady greener, with 50 percent of power coming from low-carbon sources by 2030 and all new electricity generation being low-carbon by 2050. But even so, if the enhanced low-carbon scenario is to be achieved, "it will require innovation and technology sharing on a global scale."
It may be startling to hear--even hard to believe--that China's leaders are considering policy changes of this magnitude. But a decade ago, when I was privileged to spend ten days in China looking into the dilemmas posed by coal-fired power generation for an IEEE Spectrum special report (November-December 1999), I was startled by the openness with which Beijing officials were willing to address concerns. I would not have been the first to remark on the country anomalies: a communist government getting set to restructure its electricity system and introduce competition, as if Margaret Thatcher herself were in charge; mid-level officials discussing sensitive and embarrassing issues of pollution and public health in a more relaxed manner than a reporter typically finds in Washington, Paris, or London.
This doesn't mean the Chinese will necessarily succeed in meeting carbon goals, of course. But it would be a mistake to assume they are insincere in setting such goals, or that they are just humoring other countries' negotiators.