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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: China's strategies to combat climate change

Blogger's note: I have a tendency to read such articles with a highly jaundiced eye.

China's strategies to combat climate change

Editor's note: The following article is drawn from findings published in the Climate Group's July report, "China's Clean Revolution." PDF

China is pursuing a green energy program for all the right reasons: It will offer the country a new source of domestically produced energy, provide an alternative to imported fuels, and help support Beijing's ongoing economic development. What's more, a renewable energy platform also lays the groundwork for developing new business sectors that could contribute to the economy through job creation and export potential. In short, China recognizes that energy efficiency addresses global warming, but also that the actions needed to tackle climate change also could contribute to economic development. In addition, by moving quickly to implement policies that address global warming, China is positioning itself to work more effectively with the international community to negotiate a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.

That isn't to say any of this will be easy. China faces real challenges in balancing continued economic development against the need to safeguard the environment domestically and to play a responsible role in the international community as well.

Since Beijing launched its economic reforms in the early 1980s and opened the country to ever-increasing levels of foreign investment, China's economy has grown at a breakneck pace of 10-15 percent each year--with the exception of 1989 and 1990 when gross domestic product (GDP) growth cooled. Even as the global economy has vacillated since 2001, the Chinese economy has continued to grow at rates of 8-11 percent per year. An explosion in manufacturing has largely driven this rapid expansion. In the process, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and turned itself into an economic and industrial powerhouse.

Of course, the rapid growth and major shift to manufacturing has meant a corresponding rise in energy use. As a result, China has become the planet's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China is also now the world's largest producer and consumer of coal at about 2.5 billion tons--or 40 percent of the global total. In fact, coal is the source of 80 percent of Chinese electricity, and is one of the few fuel resources China has in great abundance.

Yet, overall, energy intensity in China has improved steadily at a rate of around 3.9 percent per year from 1980 to 2005, resulting in impressive cumulative gains. For example, in 1980, China consumed 17 tons of coal for every $1,400 of GDP it produced, but that figure fell to 1.2 tons per $1,400 of GDP in 2006.

And despite the rapid rise in total energy use, per-capita energy consumption is still well below that of the West, as the average Chinese citizen consumes less than one-half the energy of the average person in the European Union (EU) and only one-fourth that of the average American. Again, the challenge becomes how China will deliver an improved standard of living for its populace while also protecting the environment and addressing global warming. It's an especially vexing proposition when Beijing's reliance on coal is considered.

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