05 July 2010

China's Not-So-Spontaneous Decarbonization

It is old news for regular readers of this blog, but today's NYT has a thoughtful article on how China's emissions are surging and efforts to increase efficiency gains are foundering.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Already, in the last three years, China has shut down more than a thousand older coal-fired power plants that used technology of the sort still common in the United States. China has also surpassed the rest of the world as the biggest investor in wind turbines and other clean energy technology. And it has dictated tough new energy standards for lighting and gas mileage for cars.

But even as Beijing imposes the world’s most rigorous national energy campaign, the effort is being overwhelmed by the billionfold demands of Chinese consumers.

Chinese and Western energy experts worry that China’s energy challenge could become the world’s problem — possibly dooming any international efforts to place meaningful limits on global warming.

If China cannot meet its own energy-efficiency targets, the chances of avoiding widespread environmental damage from rising temperatures “are very close to zero,” said Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency in Paris.

Aspiring to a more Western standard of living, in many cases with the government’s encouragement, China’s population, 1.3 billion strong, is clamoring for more and bigger cars, for electricity-dependent home appliances and for more creature comforts like air-conditioned shopping malls.

As a result, China is actually becoming even less energy efficient. And because most of its energy is still produced by burning fossil fuels, China’s emission of carbon dioxide — a so-called greenhouse gas — is growing worse. This past winter and spring showed the largest six-month increase in tonnage ever by a single country.

The article also explains that earlier assumptions of "spontaneous decarbonization" implicit in major energy and emissions assessments were likely overly optimistic:

Until recently, projections by both the International Energy Agency and the Energy Information Administration in Washington had assumed that, even without an international energy agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, China would achieve rapid improvements in energy efficiency through 2020.

But now China is struggling to limit emissions even to the “business as usual” levels that climate models assume if the world does little to address global warming.

This of course echos an argument that I made along with Tom Wigley and Chris Green in a 2008 paper in Nature (PDF) focused on the assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization in the IPCC, in which we conclude:
There is no question about whether technological innovation is necessary — it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus directly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.
At some point climate policies will have to evolve to reflect the realities of economic growth and energy demand, and move beyond magical solutions. We are not there yet, but we are getting closer.