China confronts global warming dilemma
China, the world leader in both economic growth and carbon emissions, faces the dilemma of how to respond to the challenges of global warming while not harming its robust economy.
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The following year there began to be more frequent mentions of climate change in Chinese newspapers and at academic conferences, accelerating after the 2008 storms.Skip to next paragraph
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China today remains a nation ruled by an authoritarian one-party government. Thus, as with all matters deemed essential to the national interest, it is the country’s top leadership that drives the national debate on climate change.
Going into the Copenhagen talks — which some say present China with an opportunity to improve its image in the international arena — China’s negotiating position will be determined by a special inter-departmental climate committee chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao. Several ministries will be represented, most significantly the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s key economic ministry.
While there is no formal and open process for lobbying the government in China — and no equivalent of Washington’s “K Street” — there are opportunities for businesses and other interested parties to make their voices heard.
Most ministries consult informally with industry heads and, in some cases, with trusted academics and, very occasionally, heads of non-governmental organizations. That process has applied to the writing of recent regulations relevant to China’s carbon footprint, including vehicle efficiency standards, a recent fuel tax hike, and discussions now underway in Beijing about including “carbon intensity” targets in the next Five-Year Plan.
With many of its environmental proposals, the central government has faced industry reluctance. Take the national alternative energy targets. Beijing has assigned each of China’s top-10 power companies — state-owned enterprises that together account for 60 percent of China’s electricity and are a significant source of carbon emissions — a goal of generating three percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010.
But, according to calculations by Greenpeace China, based on data supplied by the companies themselves, only one appears to be on track to meet those targets.
At the root of the problem is simple economics. Coal remains the cheapest source of power generation, which hampers the implementation of China’s renewable energy law.
Says Yang Ailun, climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace China: “The [power] companies earn more money with coal. Our argument is that the price of coal in China is too cheap. It’s plentiful and easy to mine, but the current coal price doesn’t reflect the serious environmental or health side-effects.” (Greenpeace estimates that these “external costs” of coal burning amount to seven percent of China’s GDP.)
The price of power
Barbara Finamore, founder and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China Program, offers a similar perspective: “Right now renewable energy is a lot more expensive in China. The renewable energy law requires that utilities obtain a certain percentage from alternative energy sources, but they must do so at above market rate. The fact of matter is that it [the law] is not being well-implemented.”
Ms. Finamore suggests that raising coal prices could help “level the playing field.” Some groups, including Greenpeace China, call for a tax on carbon to account for the external costs that are not reflected in the current market price. But while the proposal has been around for decades, it has consistently stalled.