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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

China's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could Double in Coming Decade

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute

China's greenhouse gas emissions could more than double by 2020, according to a new report released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Beijing has been reluctant to release official data on greenhouse gas from the nation's fast-growing use of coal, oil and gas. This new study from the state-run institute breaks that reticence and sends another clear reminder that China is where our quest for climate stability will be won or lost.

"To a significant degree, our planet's energy and environmental future is now being written in China," says the study's authors. And the only way that story has a happy ending is if China has access to clean and cheap energy sources to power its sustainable development.

According to Reuters:

By 2020, China's burning of fossil fuels could annually emit carbon dioxide equal in mass to 2.5 billion metric tonnes of pure carbon and up to 2.9 billion tonnes, depending on varying scenarios for development and technology, the new report states. By 2030, those annual emissions may reach 3.1 billion tonnes a year and up to 4.0 billion tonnes.

That compares to current total global emissions of about 8.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon per year. The United States emitted roughly 1.6 billion metric tonnes in 2007, according to Oak Ridge National Lab.

The net total of natural sinks for carbon is estimated at around 2 billion metric tons of carbon per year. That means if we hope to reach climate stability at any level of atmospheric concentration of CO2, net global human-caused emissions must fall below that level. Returning to lower concentrations of CO2, as US climate scientist James Hansen and others have called for, would require global emissions to fall far below the level of natural sinks, calling for at least an 80% cut in global emissions from today's levels by mid-century.

Needless to say, if a single nation alone emits far more than that amount in the coming decades, climate stability of any kind will be impossible.

The only solution is to develop clean and cheap energy sources that can power sustainable development in China and elsewhere.

China has routinely stated that it will not sacrifice economic development to pursue greenhouse gas emissions reductions. "[R]elative to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, economic development is even more important," the study says, re-iterating that sentiment.

China is not alone in seeing potential trade-offs between climate goals and economic development -- or in having a clear and consistent position about which is the priority in case of conflict. India, Brazil and other rapidly developing nations frequently express this sentiment, arguing that developed nations enjoyed over a century of unbridled carbon emissions and therefore bear the responsibility for cutting emissions. And with developed nations gripped by economic recession, we're seeing priorities in the EU, Canada and the US shift towards the economy side of the economy-environment axis.

So long as this trade-off exists - in reality, or as a strongly-held belief in the hearts or minds of decision makers across the planet - we have little hope of stabilizing our warming climate.

The only way out of this predicament is to up-end the trade-off itself by focusing on the development of clean and cheap energy sources. China, India, Brazil, and even the developed nations of the world need access to energy sources to secure their economic future, and the global community must do whatever we can to ensure they have access to affordable energy sources that do not imperil our ecological future. That challenge is primarily a technological innovation challenge, one that has, to date, been given short shrift by the assembled nations of the Kyoto Protocol and it's successor treaty, currently under development.

As Reuters points out:

The [new] study may add to contention over China's response to global warming at a time of accelerating international negotiations. Beijing will be at the heart of efforts to forge a treaty next year to succeed the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012.

If the international climate negotiations hinge on efforts to badger China into agreeing to limit their emissions with little focus on the need to develop clean and cheap energy sources, we should expect to "win," at best, hollow promises from the Chinese government. If instead, the international community comes together to pool resources, spur innovation, and foster the development and deployment of affordable clean energy sources across the world, we may yet have reason for hope.

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