Paper: China Can’t Be Trusted To Fight Global Warming

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

China is making big pledges to fight global warming at the United Nations climate talks, including a new one to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 60 percent in five years.

But take these pledges with a grain of salt, says a veteran economist who works extensively in China, because “China’s Communist Party knows that to stay in power – its highest priority – it must maintain the economic growth rates that have raised the incomes of much of its population and kept opposition at bay.”

“With China’s economic growth faltering, the last thing the Communist Party wants is to hobble its economy further by curtailing the use of the fossil fuels upon which its economy depends,” writes economist Patricia Adams, the executive director of the Toronto-based Probe International — a group that works closely with Chinese NGOs.

“A major cutback in fossil fuel use represents an existential threat to the Communist Party’s rule. It simply isn’t going to happen,” writes Adams in a new paper published by the U.K.-based Global Warming Policy Foundation.

China has made several major promises in the last year to cut carbon dioxide emissions in the coming years, boosting hopes among environmentalists the communist country will sign a legally binding U.N. climate treaty.

Most recently, China’s government promised to cut emissions from the power sector 60 percent by 2020, but gave no specifics on how this will be achieved. It’s announcement of further CO2 cuts comes as world leaders hash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol in Paris.

“China also knows that Western leaders’ have no firm expectation of concrete commitments in Paris,” she notes. “Rather, their paramount goal is to maintain face at the Paris talks, which would collapse without China’s presence. China is deftly preparing the stage in Paris to position itself as the Third World’s defender and also as a recipient of the billions in climate aid that it is demanding from the West.”

“We can expect more announcements, agreements, and soaring rhetoric from global politicians at the Paris Conference, along with an agreement to meet again next year,” Adams writes. “What we cannot expect are reforms designed to reduce China’s carbon emissions.”

Environmentalists also hope China’s horrible air quality will encourage the country to tackle CO2 emissions. A recent report from the nonprofit Berkeley Earth claims Chinese air pollution kills some 4,000 people a day. But hoping air pollution worries will curb CO2 is a false hope, says Adams.

“A programme to rapidly reduce pollutants harmful to human health would be at odds with a programme to reduce CO2,” writes Adams, adding that CO2 is a colorless, odorless gas that has no effect on human health.

“The opposite is true,” writes Adams. “Not only do the goals of reducing carbon emissions and air pollution not reinforce each other, they conflict… Efforts to reduce it rely on unproven abatement technologies, and are prohibitively expensive. In contrast, abating air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide rely on proven technologies and are relatively inexpensive.”

The U.S. had a similar experience in dealing with air pollutants. Since 1980, air pollution has fallen 63 percent due to regulations and new technologies all while CO2 emissions increased 17 percent, according to federal data.

The U.S. has recently seen a dip in CO2 emissions, but this is almost entirely due to increased natural gas use thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

“I have never heard of a public protest in China against carbon dioxide emissions,” notes Adams. “CO2 is a major concern for Western NGOs with offices in Beijing but it’s a non-issue for Chinese citizens and environmentalists at the grassroots.”

There are other reasons to be pessimistic about China’s pledge to cut CO2 emissions. First, China has tripled its coal use since 2000 and plans on increasing it another 16 percent by 2020 — coal use has been key to reducing poverty in China.

China also has plans to build 155 new coal-fired power plants in the coming years. It’s not clear if all will be built because of policy changes or economic conditions, but it suggests China is more serious about growing its economy than cutting CO2 emissions.

Second, China won’t be able to make substantial cuts to CO2 emissions — even if it wanted to — if it’s unable to maintain high levels of economic growth. If the recent slowdown in China’s economy continues, it could derail any attempts to cut CO2.

“I think low growth makes it more difficult to achieve their target,” says Shoichi Itoh with Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ).

“They want to reduce energy consumption and emissions for their own purposes,” Itoh says. “If Chinese economy slows down, they can’t expect people to pay more for energy. So people might lose their appetite for reducing emissions.”

On the other hand, China will find ways to use energy more efficiently like every other advanced economy has in past decades. This will help decrease the energy intensity of economic growth, but it won’t decouple growth from energy use.

“China will entrench cleaner-burning fossil fuels in its economy, costing the West its leverage over China’s energy policies,” Adams writes. “China’s leadership knows that what China says to the West is more important than what China does, absolving it of the need to make any binding commitment to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.”

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Tags : barack obama china energy global warming policy foundation kyoto protocol paris united nations
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