It sounds like wishful thinking: The United States, under new President Barack Obama, forges an alliance with China to combat emissions. The world's two largest sources of carbon dioxide finally face the problem. The treaty crowns the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, when a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol -- which, as everyone knows, the United States never ratified -- will be adopted. Third World countries and emerging economies never had to do it, but in Copenhagen rising economic powers like China make a binding commitment to curb their emissions.
It probably is wishful thinking. It has almost nothing to do with reality.
"Many Western industrialized nations want China to commit to reducing its CO2 emissions," says Dabo Guan of the Electricity Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge in England. "But the country will not even be capable of doing so."
Guan, a native of China, together with colleagues from Norway and the US, have published several studies on the issue, most recently in the academic journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL). The scientists base their conclusions primarily on the latest data compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
The outcome of their analyses is unsettling. Even with substantial increases in efficiency and the broad introduction of climate-friendly energy technologies, China's CO2 emissions, they claim, will almost double in the next two decades compared with 2002 levels.
China is already the world's fourth-largest economy. It will continue to expand at a steady pace even though the financial crisis has somewhat tempered its previously booming growth. There will be more city and road construction, infrastructure and transportation projects, as well as expanding industrial production. China opened 47 new airports between 1990 and 2002, and its highway network grew by 800,000 kilometers (500,000 miles) from 1981 to 2002. By 2030, China's population is expected to have grown from 1.3 to 1.5 billion people. More and more urban households will adopt a Western lifestyle by then, complete with air-conditioning, refrigerators, television sets, computers and other appliances.
Rising Energy Needs
This will steeply drive up energy demand in China. The IEA and NBS predict that to satisfy this demand, the country's power plants will have to supply more than 8,600 terawatts of electricity in 2030 -- about three times as much as in 2006.
China does hope to reduce its share of coal, which is harmful to the climate, from a current level of 83 percent of the country's energy production. It also wants to increase the role of biomass, water, wind and nuclear power. But coal will still account for 70 percent of China's energy supply, making it by far the most important energy source in the most populous nation on earth.
Based on these numbers, Guan and his colleagues developed their own scenarios for the next two decades, including a technology scenario that is deliberately too optimistic. The scientists assumed China would immediately equip each new coal plant with so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which extracts CO2 from emissions and stores it underground. This process of CO2 sequestration is in an early test phase today. Experts don't expect it to be ready for large-scale use before 2025.
The sobering result of this utopian scenario is that even with all new coal power plants equipped with CCS, China's CO2 emissions would increase by 80 percent by 2030.
"This shows how big the challenge of emissions reduction really is," says Australian mathematician Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. In the scientists' best-case scenarios, three out of five coal power plants will still be older models without CCS technology, and those plants will be generating more and more electricity to boot. Besides, even CCS power plants emit some CO2.
"Or course, we have addressed renewable energy sources," says environmental economist Guan. For instance, if China were to commit to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions to 2000 levels by 2030, Guan says, 40 percent of its primary energy production would have to come from renewable sources like biomass, wind and hydroelectric power. "No country on earth has such a high percentage today, and China will certainly not achieve this by 2030," says Guan.
"That would be a dangerous path"
Peters points out that the industrialized countries clearly share some responsibility for China's miserable impact on the climate. In the GRL study, he and his co-authors analyze the reasons energy consumption and emissions in China rose so sharply between 2002 and 2007. They say most of the blame goes to ballooning annual growth of 26 percent in the export products industry.
"About two-thirds of Chinese exports go to the United States, Japan, Europe and Australia," says Guan, who suggests that consumers in the Western industrialized countries should question their "luxurious lifestyle." Guan points out that "eating imported food three times a week" isn't absolutely necessary. The products China exports, however, are mainly electronics, metals, chemicals and textiles.
Another detail worth noting is that industrial production and power generation in China "are dirtier than in many other countries," as the researchers claim. Goods that China exports are four times as harmful to the climate as those it imports, based on CO2 emissions associated with their production. According to the studies, neighboring Japan uses energy nine times as efficiently as China.
For this reason, Peters suggests that China should begin by using energy less wastefully. In China, he says, it is "completely normal for buildings to be overheated, so that people have to open the windows so that it doesn't get too hot inside." According to Peters, there are many of these "simple things" that China could change to reduce costs and CO2 emissions at the same time.
Guan, for his part, urges his native China not to imitate the West's energy-intensive lifestyle on a broad scale. "That," he says, "would be a dangerous path."