Missing in action at UN climate summit: world's top polluter

Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be among 120 world leaders meeting in New York today for a climate summit. China says it's doing more to tackle climate change than it gets credit for.

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping (l.) and his wife Peng Liyuan wave during an official welcoming ceremony at Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, Sri Lanka, Sept. 16, 2014.

As 120 world leaders meet today in New York for a climate summit, there will be one notable absentee: the leader of the country that emits more carbon dioxide than any other and whose emissions are rising faster than any others.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is otherwise engaged, say Chinese officials, and has sent a deputy premier in his stead.

As the world’s biggest CO2 culprit, China comes in for a lot of criticism from climate change activists, and Beijing has generally done a poor job of deflecting that flak.

But officials here insist their efforts to address the problem are going unrecognized. Last Friday, presenting a new climate change action plan, a top government economic planner said that China was on schedule to meet its 2020 target of reducing emissions intensity by 40-45 percent from 2005 levels.

Emissions intensity measures how much carbon dioxide is emitted per unit of GDP, and there is no doubt that Chinese factories and power plants are using coal and oil much more efficiently than they once did.

But China's economy is growing so fast that even if it meets its 2020 intensity goals, it will still be emitting 73 percent more carbon dioxide in absolute terms than it did in 2005.

China is responsible for 29 percent of annual global carbon emissions, or nearly twice as much as the United States, according to calculations by the Global Carbon Project, an international scientific research effort. And Chinese arguments that on a per capita basis China isn't polluting as much as rich industrialized nations are beginning to wear a little thin.

Indeed, China’s per capita CO2 emissions in 2013 for the first time exceeded those of the European Union (though Americans and Australians are still far more profligate). 

Beijing is reluctant – like all developing countries – to hobble its economic development by reducing its energy consumption. It has refused to set itself absolute emissions targets.

Environmentalists say emissions targets would be better for the world’s climate than intensity targets, and Chinese officials are dropping hints that the next Five Year Plan, to run from 2016, may include such concrete caps. But they have long shied away from any predictions of when China’s emissions will peak, and when they will start to decline. Few observers expect any decline to happen until 2030.

In the meantime, the deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission, Xie Zhenhua, boasted on Friday of China's ramp-up of renewable energy production. Installed hydropower capacity doubled between 2005 and 2013; installed wind-power capacity jumped 60 fold; and solar power generation leapt 280 times in the same period.

That is all true. But alongside such encouraging developments, the construction of carbon-spewing, coal-fueled power plants has continued apace: last year, figures from the China National Energy Administration show, the country built more coal-fired generating capacity than all the renewables put together. 

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