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China Should Prioritize Energy Efficiency to Deal with Challenge of Reducing Emissions

Published by MAC on 2007-07-15

China Should Prioritize Energy Efficiency to Deal with Challenge of Reducing Emissions

Jiahua Pan, China Watch

24th July 2007 As the global temperature warms, how to deal with climate change has become a hot topic among the international community. As such, it is important to recognize both the potential and the challenge that China faces in reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In 2005, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was 8.7 times higher than it was in 1980, showing an annual average growth rate of some 9.5 percent. Total energy consumption was roughly 4.3 times the 1980 level, with average growth of some 5.7 percent each year. And China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion more than doubled between 1980 and 2003, from 394 million tons to 966 million tons, showing an average growth of nearly 4 percent a year. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China accounted for nearly 18 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2004, up from only 5.7 percent in 1990.

Recent national estimates on China’s economic growth and GHG emissions have underestimated the nation’s future energy needs. A 2003 projection, for example, predicts that China’s total primary energy consumption in 2020 will require some 3.1 billion tons of standard coal equivalent, up from 1.37 billion tons in 1998. And it predicts that China’s CO2 emissions will reach roughly 1.9 billion tons of standard coal equivalent in 2020.

In 2006 alone, however, the nation consumed nearly 2.46 billion tons of standard coal equivalent in total primary energy, or nearly 0.56 billion tons more than it is projected to use in 2010.

The Chinese government has set an energy-saving goal of reducing the country’s energy intensity by 20 percent between 2005 and 2010, but the nation’s total primary energy consumption in 2010 is likely to be close to or even greater than the 2020 projection.

China plays a decisive role in global climate change negotiations as a major developing country. But the international goal of stabilizing GHG concentrations in the atmosphere should take into full consideration China’s current status as an industrializing nation. The country’s rapid industrialization process will last until at least 2020, and its GHG emissions will likely not stop growing before 2050. Moreover, even though China is switching to a low-carbon economy, the cost of reducing GHG emissions is much higher than expected. For example, renovating existing buildings into energy-efficient ones requires an extra 15 percent in investment, while choosing renewable energy costs more than 30 percent more than traditional energy. Where will the money come from? Finally, because carbon capture and storage technologies are costly in the short term, and these treatments also require significant amounts of energy, their potential to reduce GHG emissions remains to be seen.

China should continue to diversify its energy sources. The share of coal in the nation’s total primary energy use dropped from some 72 percent in 1980 to some 68 percent in 2004. But the coal-dominated energy structure has not fundamentally changed in the past 20 years. To optimize its energy structure, ensure energy security, protect the environment, and promote sustainable development, China aims to diversify its energy sources as one of its major energy strategies. According to the Middle and Long-term Renewable Energy Development Plan, by 2020 renewable energy will account for nearly 15 percent of total primary energy consumption—the equivalent of some 3.5 billion tons of coal.

Replacing carbon-intensive coal with low-carbon fuels and developing a diversity of energy sources will help mitigate the effects of rising GHG emissions. According to a report on the status and future prospects of wind power in China, by 2020 the country’s wind-power generating capacity will reach nearly 40,000 megawatts, generating 80 billion kilowatthours in electricity a year for some 800 million residents and avoiding some 48 million tons of CO2 emissions. The Chinese government is also stressing the development and use of nuclear energy, and the nation’s nuclear power generation capacity will account for 4 percent—some 400,000 megawatts—of its total power output by 2020.

Now is a crucial period for China in its industrialization. Because the nation is currently unable to make huge strides in emissions reduction, it should prioritize both energy efficiency and the development of low-emissions technologies to take full advantage of the links between energy savings and reductions in CO2 emissions.

Pan Jiahua is vice director and a researcher at the Center for Urban Development and Environment under the China Academy of Social Sciences. A version of this article was first posted by People’s Daily in April.

China Watch is a joint initiative of the Worldwatch Institute and Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) and is supported by the blue moon fund.

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