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Climate pledge puts China on course to peak emissions as early as 2027

Posted on 18 July 2015 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief by Simon Evans

China is aiming to peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions "around 2030" and will make "best efforts" to peak early, its climate pledge to the UN confirms.

China's  intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) includes a new target to reduce its carbon intensity by 60-65% of 2005 levels by 2030. Carbon Brief analysis suggests the top end of this range would see CO2 peaking in 2027. China also says it will source 20% of its energy in 2030 from low-carbon sources.

The announcement, which adds to existing  Chinese commitments, came on a busy day on Tuesday for climate pledges. South Korea, Serbia and Iceland all filed INDCs with the UN, bringing the share of global emissions covered by pledges to nearly 56%. Tuesday also saw Brazil and the US announce new commitments to renewable energy at a joint summit in Washington.

Largest emitter

As the world's largest emitter responsible for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, China's announcement is the most significant. Amber Rudd, UK energy and climate change secretary, said it was a sign that momentum was  building for a deal in Paris this December. We'll look at what China says it wants from that deal in a moment.

China become the world's largest emitter in 2005-6 (red line, below), after overtaking the EU in 2003 and the US in 2005. It rapidly eclipsed the world's other major economies through  coal-fuelled expansion and double-digit economic growth.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 At 12.11.18

Energy-related CO2 emissions in major economies and the rest of the world, 1970-2014. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015. Chart by Carbon Brief.

However, emissions and coal use in China stalled in 2014, following a decade-long expansion, with GDP growth easing to around 7%. China is still adding to its coal-generating capacity, so the potential remains for coal use to rebound and expand. The government has set a generous cap on coal use that will apply from 2020, but it is far above current levels.

The slow-down in emissions with continued economic growth is a result of structural changes in China's development. It says it is pursuing "ecological civilisation", and hopes to work with other nations to "build a beautiful homeland for all human beings". Its climate goals are part of this effort.

Apart from aiming to peak carbon emissions around 2030, China's INDC extends its existing carbon intensity target, on the emissions required to generate a unit of GDP. China has long set intensity targets, and though it has a good record of meeting them, some analysts areconcerned it might fall short on the current round, which run to the end of 2015.

It now aims to reduce carbon intensity by 40-45% of 2005 levels by 2020 and by 60-65% in 2030. This implies annual improvements of 3.4-3.9% to 2020 and 3.1-5.2% in the following decade.

Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia tells Carbon Brief that China will "almost certainly" reach the top end of its intensity target for 2020.

Peak emissions

Translating the intensity target into emissions requires assumptions about the path of Chinese economic growth. Carbon Brief analysis, based on GDP projections from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows CO2 emissions could peak in 2027 at around 12.7 billion tonnes (red line, below), up from 9.8Gt in 2014.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 At 17.36.43

Millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions in China. Historical data from the BP Statistical Reviewand the World Bank. Future emissions estimated based on OECD projections for economic growth and steady progress towards the upper (65%) or lower (60%) end of China's carbon intensity target for 2030. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Some analysts believe China will peak its emissions by 2025 or before. This could be followed by a long emissions plateau.

There is great potential for cost-effective energy efficiency improvements in China, particularly in industry, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). If exploited, the IEA says this Chinese CO2 emissions would peak by the early 2020s.

Greenhouse gases

Others suggest non-CO2 emissions — and China's total emissions — may continue to grow even if CO2 reaches a peak. There is limited detail on other greenhouse gases in the Chinese pledge.

It has vague targets to "enhance" efforts to capture methane in oil and gas fields and to "control" methane emissions from rice paddies. It also aims to phase down use of HCFC-22, a potent greenhouse gas, and to "achieve effective control" of another, HFC-23.

There is also a promise to "vigorously enhance afforestation" and increase the stock of biomass stored in forests by 4.5bn cubic metres by 2030, against 2005 levels. The pledge does not explain how this might help to reduce net emissions. However, trees are thought to absorb around a tonne of CO2 per cubic metre of biomass.

China says it has met an earlier pledge on forest stocks by adding 2.2bn tonnes between 2005 and 2014, while expanding its forested area by 21.6m hectares — roughly the area of the UK. Over the 16 years to 2030, therefore, China's forest stock pledge could see an additional 140MtCO2 absorbed by forests each year, slightly less than 10% of total CO2 emissions.s

Low-carbon energy

China's climate pledge also repeated its existing goals to source 20% of its energy needs from non-fossil sources by 2030, up from 15% in 2020. This would imply roughly maintaining the rate of progress seen since 2011.

This expansion has been based on a massive build-out of renewables, particularly hydro, with China adding nearly half of the additional renewable power generated globally over the past decade. It has targets to raise hydro capacity to 420 gigawatts (GW) in 2020, while adding 18GW of nuclear, doubling wind to 220 GW and doubling solar to 70GW, all between 2015 and 2020.

Low -c Energy Share In China

Share of China's energy needs met by low-carbon sources, including nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 and China's INDC. Chart by Carbon Brief.

To achieve these ambitions, China has been investing more in renewable energy than the US, EU and Japan put together. Combined low-carbon power capacity could expand by 800-1,000GW between now and 2030, according to the World Resources Institute.

Paris deal

China says it wants a legally binding UN climate deal from Paris that is "balanced and ambitious", guided by the climate convention principles of equity and "common but differentiated responsibilities". This means the agreement should require all parties to limit or reduce emissions during 2020-2030, China says, but with developed countries taking the lead.

It repeats calls on climate finance and technology transfer made jointly with the BASIC group of emerging economies over the weekend. China wants the core Paris agreement to include elements on cutting emissions, adapting to climate change, financing the efforts of poorer nations and transferring low-carbon technologies.

It says it will establish a Fund for South-South Cooperation on Climate Change to provide "assistance and support, within its means" to other African nations, small island states and other developing countries. This breaks with previous tradition, where developed nations are the only ones that have been obliged to provide climate finance.

Though China's language on the Paris deal is detailed, it leaves plenty of wriggle room around the details of which parts should be legally binding, on who, and in what way. And in common with all other climate pledges so far, its INDC remains well short of what would be required to meet the agreed 2C target for avoiding dangerous climate change.

Liz Gallagher, programme leader on climate diplomacy at thinktank E3G says:

"This submission is critical to building momentum towards a climate deal in Paris. There is still time for China to ramp up ambition.  These offers are the floor, not the ceiling of a deal in Paris."

In the corridors of the Bonn climate talks in June, there was a sense that, perhaps in contrast to the ill-fated Copenhagen talks in 2009, China is strongly in favour of a deal in Paris. To the extent that it has been playing hardball on some issues, it is more a case of attempting to extract concessions rather than walking away completely.

So the Chinese pledge is being received as a positive, yet insufficient momentum-building step towards a deal — and just maybe, leaving the door open for 2C.

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. We call China the biggest polluter yet the US leads China by 300% in per capita CO2 production, and per capita hydrocarbon use.  


    And a 60-70 years polluting Head Start

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  2. longjohn119, examine those factors (i.e. current emissions, per capita emissions, longest emissions period) and you will find that the US is not the "biggest polluter" under any of them. You'd have to go with something like 'total accumulated emissions'... and even there China will pass the US.

    Right now, China is the single country which can do the most to reduce global warming. If they got down to zero emissions the world would be about a quarter of the way there. The US & EU combined gets us a little over another quarter. The remaining half is unfortunately spread throughout the world in small slices that will each need to be solved individually... but three governments could deal with half the problem and China is far and away the most important of those. Especially as it is the only one of the big three where emissions are still increasing.

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  3. CBDunkerson @2, here is the breakdown of the 12 nations with the highest per capita emissions, as of 2010-2014:

    1. Qatar 43.9
    2. Trinidad and Tobago 37.2
    3. Kuwait 29.1
    4. Brunei Darussalam 24
    5. Aruba 23.9
    6. Oman 21.4
    7. Luxembourg 20.9
    8. United Arab Emirates 20
    9. Saudi Arabia 18.7
    10. Bahrain 18.1
    11. United States 17
    12. Australia 16.5

    With the exception of Luxembourg, all nations ranked higher than the US have economies dominated by the supply of fossil fuels.

    China, with emissions 6.7 metric tonnes per capita, ranks 47th in the world and emits just 40% of US emissions per capita.  It also performs better than most European nations, including Denmark, Germany and the UK, although some (including Sweden and France) do better.  The European Union as a whole emists 7.1 metric tonnes per capita (2011 figures), so China continues to perform better then the EU.

    This is important in that the only just way to view emissions is on a per capita basis.  Expecting third world nations to allow past high emissions by the West to be a warrant for continuing high per capita emissions by the West is unjust.  It is also guarentteed to fail as a negotiating strategy.  Given this, the fact that the US doesn't top Qatar in per capita emissions is a distraction.  The most we can demand of China is that they not exceed our per capita emissions; which there is no indication that they will do.

    Of course, if, as the West should, we start counting emissions targets in per capita terms, we might then reasonably expect China to do more as it now exceeds world per capita emissions (5 metric tonnes per capita).  However, I see no haste by first world negotiators to make that transition.  They seem more concerned with cementing in past economic advantages rather than solving the problem of AGW.

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  4. CBDunkerson,

    Your comment is a little confusing.

    Reviewing the following presentation of the history of national CO2 emissions it appears that the only measure where the US is not a bigger polluter than China is in the 'recent rate of emissions' category.

    And the per-capita emissions presented by the World Bank clearly indicate China is a long way from exceeding the US per-capita rates.

    And I do not accept any claim that focuses on 'one or a few nations to blame'.

    I prefer to focus on restricting the actions of the group of wealthy and powerful people who try to get as wealthy and powerful as possible through activity they could understand was damaging and would not develop a lasting better future for everyone.

    Those unacceptable people exist in China. They also exist outside China and are invested in benefiting from the unacceptable things that happen in China.

    These people are the real problem. They will deliberately pursue and promote damaging activity that a declining number of people can benefit from as the non-renewable resources consumed by their pursuit of profit and benefit are diminished.

    Those powerful wealthy people have a long history of trying to hide of make excuses for the unacceptable opportunities they want to benefit from. They have even manipulated governments to get the type of leadership they want, including a history of assassinations and government overthrows and even the starting of multinational wars in the hopes of benefiting. (Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein are among the many who have clearly presented details of the long history of damaging actions by this group of trouble-makers).

    So the required action is the shutting down of the unacceptable pursuits of this group of trouble-makers. The worst of the group are very unlikely to willingly change their minds. They will need to be forced to change their minds and behave more considerately, less competitively. And any of that group that persist in fighting against the developed better understanding of how to behave need to be kept from having any significant influence on the global rules of the game and its monitoring.

    Those trouble-makers are identifiable. Ultimately, they need to be excluded from having any influence at important global meetings such as the Paris talks later this year. Having to obtain 'consensus' about what needs to be done with those types of people is clearly a waste of time, which is what those type of people want the Paris meeting to be.

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  5. To further clarify my comment @4 and tie it in to the point Tom Curtis makes about per-capita being the key way of looking at this issue, the wealthy powerful trouble-makers I am referring to are clearly the people who 'per-capita' are causing the most negaive impact.

    This group will 'lose wealth' due to the rapid changes of what is required and allowed to happen globally. Their efforts to fight against such loses are understandable. But they clearly are undeserving of their power and undeserving of the perceptions of personal wealth measured in the current fatally-flawed global economic game.

    Reducing the number of the highest negative impacting individuals is the required global action, and those highest negative impacting people know it and will fight against it becoming the reality on this amazing planet (their lifetime is the only period of time they care about, with many of them pursuing shorter term benefit even if it may produce a negative consequence for them in their lifetime - as the global financiers did as they marched things towards the 2008 collapse).

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  6. Tom, that '2010-2014' link on the World Bank page opens up data for 2010 & 2011. Presumably they plan to add 2012-14 at some point, but the values you cited were not for 2014 or averages over the whole time period, but rather the numbers specifically for 2011. Since then US emissions per capita have dropped below Australia's and China's have grown to exceed the EU. Yes, the US is still very high... but not the worst / "biggest polluter" either per capita or current emissions.

    As to per capita emissions being "the only just way" to look at emissions... maybe so, but looking at countries is the practical way to address the problem. Individual citizens of any country (i.e. per capita) aren't going to solve this problem. Their governments need to do so... and therefore China, the US, and the EU are the three governments that can do the most about GHG emissions. Whether it is 'just' that they do so is a separate issue.

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  7. CBDunkerson @6, sorry, I missed the individual year thing.  Looking closer I notice that the figures I linked to come from CDIAC, and includes fossil fuel and cement figures only.  The more comprehensive EDGAR estimates also include LUC, and extend to 2013.  They still show Chinese per capita emissions as less than half those of the US in 2013.  Projecting the trends from all data points, Chinese per capita emissions will surpass US per capita emissions around 2035, but around 2020 if we only project the trend since 2010.

    More interestingly, assuming China meets its 2030 emissions intensity commitment, and assuming growth at 7% per annum over the interem, Chinese per capita emissions will grow by 90% by 2030, reaching approximately 13 tonnes per capita per annum.  If the US meets its commitments, linearly extended to 2030, their per capita emissions will be about 11 tonnes per capita per annum.  As both have similar population growth rates (0.5% pre annum for China; 0.6% per annum for the US), if China had historically emitted at Western levels, its commitment would be inline with that of the US.  Given the Kyoto formula of early commitments by the developed nations with less developed nations coming into line with developed nation commitments as their economies mature, we would have to judge China's commitment as equivalent to that of the US.  I am sure that is how the Chinese government views it - as a commitment to balance economic growth while matching US commitment on climate action (and never reaching the peaks of US excess on per capita fossil fuel emissions, or as they phrase it, in terms of emissions intensity).

    Unfortunately neither commitment is adequate.  Further, you will never persuade China that it must reduce its emissions to circa 50% of 1990 levels by 2030 as is required if we are to avoid the 2 C target while developed nations commit to no more.  Everybody is able to identify injustice when they are on the loosing side; and China is powerful enough that it cannot have injustice forced upon it.

    The advantage of a per capita commitment - prefferably a per capita quota on emissons over the next 35 years - is that it is transparently an attempt at a just formulation.   (Arguably a per capita quota since 1850 would be juster, though harder to formulate, but the West, and certainly the US would never accept it.)  Should the West switch to that formulation in determining its own targets, there is every chance that they would persuade China to join them on that basis.  They would certainly be able to persuade the rest of the world to do so.

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  8. @4, don't worry about the 'trouble-makers': they are allowed to exist only under condition.

    Markets are meant to be robust, thus the existence of said 'trouble-makers' is for mutual benefit and when it isn't they have nothing to hide behind. Saying all that means they won't disappear of course: it's called synergy! Thus things take time is all.

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