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China’s Carbon Intensity: A Roller Coaster Ride


by Bill Chameides | June 2nd, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), but are its emissions getting cleaner or dirtier?

One measure of the dirtiness of a country’s emissions is the carbon intensity of its economy: how much carbon is emitted per unit of stuff produced. If the country’s technologies are inefficient and highly polluting, its carbon intensity will be high. Conversely, countries with low carbon intensities tend to use highly advanced technologies and/or renewable energy sources.

We typically express carbon intensity as the amount of CO2 emissions divided by the size of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

A different but related metric is the per capita emissions. Like carbon intensity, this is affected by the country’s technologies, but the amount of energy and consumer products produced are also factored in.

The United States’ carbon footprint problem is its per capita emissions. We use relatively advanced technologies so our carbon intensity is low (~0.5 metric tons per $1,000US), but we have the highest rate of per capita carbon emissions (~19 metric tons per person) among the G8 + 5*. The reason is simple: we Americans consume lots of stuff. As a result, the United States emits lots of CO2 and is second only to China in total CO2 emissions.

China’s carbon footprint problem is just the opposite: its per capita emissions are low (roughly four and a half metric tons per person), but its carbon intensity is extremely high (a little more than one metric ton of CO2 per $1,000US). In fact of all the G8 + 5 countries, China has one of the largest carbon intensities, as well as the dubious distinction of being the world’s leader in annual CO2 emissions.

We’ve already talked a lot on The Green Grok about what the United States needs to do, so let’s focus here on China.

China’s predicament as a developing economy with the world’s largest emission rate is an anomaly. Developing economies typically use inefficient technologies and as a result have high carbon intensities. But these economies also tend to be small, and so, even though they have high carbon intensities, their total emissions are relatively small in a global context. China is unusual because of the sheer size of its economy. A high carbon intensity and lots of industrial production make for lots of emissions.

The good news is that as a country develops economically, the carbon intensity of its emissions almost always goes down as its industries transition to increasingly more efficient technologies. But is that the case for China?

On the one hand, China adds [pdf] about one or two dirty, coal-fired power plants every week — a statistic suggesting an increase in carbon intensity. On the other hand, China’s central government touts very ambitious mandates for renewable energy (see here and here) and automobile emissions standards (here, here and here) — which in some cases are more stringent than our own. These would suggest a declining carbon intensity.

So which is it? Here is what the available statistics say.

China’s Carbon Intensity: Going Up?

China’s carbon intensity
in units of million metric tons of CO2 per $1,000US (2000)**

1995: 1.44
2000: 0.98
2005: 1.13
2006: 1.12

Until 2000 it appears that China was going in the right direction, but after that things changed, and its carbon intensity actually went up. Some have speculated [pdf] that the huge spike in demand for Chinese goods (in large part from Americans) spurred China to rapidly shift to more energy-intensive industries like steel, electronics, and chemicals, and to keep prices low, did so without investing in modern technologies.

It’s a grim picture. The one encouraging sign is that China may have reversed the upward trend, and that its carbon intensity may now be on the decline. Some estimates (of energy intensity) suggest that China’s carbon intensity may have decreased by about 1 percent in 2006, almost 4 percent in 2007, and about 4.5 percent in 2008.

Will this short-term decrease translate into a long-term, significant downward trend in carbon intensity and ultimately into an actual decrease in emissions from China? It will have to if the world is to avoid the dangerous anthropogenic interference in climate change.

With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.

End notes

* The Group of Eight nations, or G8, represent the world’s major industrialized democracies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The G8 + 5 designation adds in the five leading emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa.

** Based on purchasing power parity

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