China moves to shrink its carbon footprint
Within a year, China is expected to outpace the US in carbon dioxide emissions.
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On the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, "one quarter of the glaciers that existed 350 years ago have disappeared," Qin Dahe, a former Chinese climate-change negotiator, said Monday. At current melt rates, "another quarter will disappear by 2050."Skip to next paragraph
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Those glaciers, he said, "are vital to people's economy and livelihood" in most of China and South Asia. "The water from these glaciers supports life for half the world's population."
"Climatic warming may have serious consequences for our survival environment, as China's economic sectors such as agriculture and coastal regions suffer grave negative effects," the Climate Change Assessment Report predicts.
Water shortages and high temperatures could reduce harvests by 10 percent by 2030; wheat, rice, and corn output could collapse by as much as 37 percent after 2050, the report says. "If we do not take any action, climate change will seriously damage China's long-term grain security."
Such grim prospects have prompted the government to set its own emissions goals. Most ambitiously, the new assessment pledges to reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 80 percent by 2050.
En route, the authorities are aiming for a 20 percent drop in energy use per GDP unit by 2010 – slightly more ambitious than President Bush's hope that US industry will voluntarily cut its emissions intensity by 18 percent by 2012.
Even if China reached half its goal, the resulting reductions in emissions growth would still be larger than the EU-15's Kyoto CO2 goal of cutting 682 million tons annually by 2012, according to the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington.
China's goal is nearly in line with a target set by Greenpeace, which just released a report urging more use of renewable energy. "China has to get rid of its dependency on coal," said Yang Ailun, Greenpeace China's climate expert. "With enforcement of energy-efficiency targets and also the decision to close down 50 gigawatts of [China's] least-efficient coal-fired plants, the trend of massive coal-fired plant installment will be slowed from 2008."
The government has also set itself the target of producing 16 percent of energy needs from renewable resources by 2020, much of which would come from hydro if the authorities meet another 2020 target: to harness 70 percent of hydro potential.
A push for nuclear energy
At the same time, China is finalizing a deal with Westinghouse Electric to buy four third-generation nuclear-power plants, along with the technological know-how to build its plants in the future.
By 2020, China plans to have multiplied installed nuclear-generating capacity fivefold from 2000 figures, to 40 gigawatts.
The government cannot guarantee meeting these targets, however: Last year, officials say, energy use per unit of GDP fell by only 1.2 percent, instead of 4 percent. This was partly because regional governments – that know they are judged on economic growth rather than on their green credentials – simply ignored Beijing's environmental edicts. Even if China does reduce its energy use per GDP unit by 4 percent a year until 2010, its growth rate is so high that by current trends it will still be emitting 30 percent more greenhouse gases in 2010 than it did in 2005.
• Staff writer Mark Clayton contributed to this report.
Green challenges for China
Planned carbon cuts: China hopes to reduce its emissions-to-GDP ratio by 20 percent by 2010, 80 percent by 2050; the White House's goal is 18 percent by 2012. Renewable resources should supply 16 percent of energy by 2020.
Risks, challenges: If emissions rates don't change, water shortages and high temperatures could cut harvests by 10 percent by 2030. China's ratio of energy-to-GDP fell 1.2 percent in 2006; its goal was 4 percent. China is the world's top producer and user of coal.