China’s Per Capita Carbon Emissions Match EU’s

According to a new report (.pdf) by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China’s per capita carbon emissions have reached a similar level to the EU’s. Global total emissions continue to rise, with the balance increasingly shifting from developed to developing countries. From PBL:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) increased by 3% last year, reaching an all-time high of 34 billion tonnes in 2011. In China, average per capita CO2 emissions increased by 9% to 7.2 tonnes CO2. This is similar to per capita emissions in the European Union.

In comparison, in 2011, the United States was still one of the largest emitters of CO2, with 17.3 tonnes in per capita emissions. […]

The increase in China’s CO2 emissions was mainly due to a continued high economic growth rate, with related increases in fossil fuel consumption. This increase in fuel consumption in 2011 was mainly driven by the increase in building construction and expansion of infrastructure, as indicated by the growth in cement and steel production. Domestic coal consumption grew by 9.7% and coal import increased by 10%, making China the world’s largest coal importer, overtaking Japan.

The data are subject to several caveats, however, as The Guardian’s Duncan Clark reports. For example, the figures count emissions from a product’s manufacture against Chinese workers rather than European consumers.

The figures published on Wednesday – like most official data on carbon emissions – are based on where fossil fuels are burned. A recent UK select committee report argued that it was also important to consider the import and export of goods when considering national responsibility for climate change. This would affect today’s data, because previous studies have suggested that almost a fifth of Chinese emissions are caused by the production of goods for export.

In addition, the new county data exclude international travel, which accounts for 3% of the global total and is likely to be heavily weighted towards richer countries. Non-CO2 greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also excluded.

[…] But a recent study showed that even when imports and international travel are taken into account, the developed world now accounts for less than half of current global emissions. Moreover, China’s emissions may be even higher than reported today according to another study showing that the country’s official energy statistics were as much as 20% lower than they should be.

Sam Geall commented at chinadialogue:

For some commentators …, these new findings … call into question China’s claim to speak for developing countries in international climate diplomacy. The lead paragraph in Nature’s story summarises this point:

“For years China has dismissed concerns about its rising carbon emissions by pointing out that, on a per-capita basis, Chinese citizens still emit far less than their counterparts in the industrialized world. But now that China’s per-capita emissions are on par with those of the European Union, that argument will be much harder to make.”

However, climate equity isn’t only about parity between nations, but also between people and social groups within nations. One journalist tweeted me to point out that the statistics misrepresented the average person in China, given vast disparities in wealth across the country.

She has a point. A nomad on the Mongolian steppe certainly has a vastly different carbon footprint from the driver of a gas-guzzler – or “oil tiger” – in Shanghai. If it is misleading to look at countries’ emissions in terms of total volume, isn’t it also a mistake to only look at per capita emissions?

Much of the rise in China’s emissions comes from an increase in coal burning to power the country’s economic growth. Surging coal use now shows some signs of tailing off: the formidable growth in imports cited by PBL has slowed to a projected 8.4% this year, the lowest since 2008. This, together with corresponding drops in electrical output growth, has helped fuel fears of a sharp economic slowdown: vice premier Li Keqiang famously places more trust in these figures than in official GDP as measures of economic health. At Caixin, however, Yu Hairong suggests other explanations: “an easing, evolving” and less carbon-intensive Chinese economy, and a shift to alternative power sources.

For years, China’s industrial structure has been heavily reliant on power-hungry businesses including steelmaking, non-ferrous metal and chemicals production, and construction materials manufacturing. Strong growth in each of these sectors factored into soaring power consumption over the past decade, said Zhang Long, chief electricity analyst at Essence Securities.

But now, China’s economy is shifting toward service-sector growth and away from heavy industry expansion. For that reason, non-residential demand for electricity has grown much faster in the service sector than in manufacturing, steelmaking, cement production and the like.

[…] Change is also affecting the power industry’s supply structure thanks to, for example, heavier use of hydroelectric plants. NEA expects an increased emphasis on hydropower and other non-coal sources of electricity to reduce power plant demand for coal by about 8 million tons this year.

Indeed, coal-fired power plant generating capacity fell 1.5 percent in May from the same month 2011. Meanwhile, nationwide hydropower generating capacity grew 31 percent in May over the same period 2011 and 52 percent over April’s level.

chinadialogue recently posted an overview of the fierce debate over hydropower expansion (via CDT), with proponents insisting that China’s rivers remain underexploited and critics arguing that they already “can hardly breathe” under the weight of existing dams. Two more recent posts at the site examine the prospects for other coal alternatives.

One is natural gas. The PBL report cites a modest shift towards gas from other fossil fuels as a factor in declining US carbon emissions. Although still made of crushed plankton and regarded as a short-term solution at best by environmentalists, it does burn more cleanly than coal or oil in terms of both carbon and particulate matter. This makes it an attractive alternative for cities like Beijing, but as An Geng and Xu Nan explain, natural gas adoption elsewhere will be hindered by cost and supply issues.

On March 3, the Beijing Development and Reform Commission (BDRC) announced a new round of targets to cut coal use, with the aim of improving air quality and reducing PM2.5 levels. The city’s plan is to cap coal use at 15 million tonnes a year by 2015, the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan period. Now, it has said it will extend and deepen this cap, cutting use to 10 million tonnes by 2020, which represents a 60% drop on 2010 figures.

Natural gas is a core part of the strategy to wean the city off coal. Under plans released in 2010, Beijing’s four remaining coal-burning power plants are due to switch over to natural-gas combined heat and power (CHP) systems by the winter of 2014 at the latest. Despite concerns about cost and supply, Beijing has pulled out the policy stops to drive through the switch, and looks set to be the first Chinese city to consign coal power to the history books. But that does not mean it will be easy for others, without the clout of the capital, to follow suit.

[…] Beijing isn’t the only city looking to gas. Shanghai also has a good number of natural gas power plants, and Chongqing is trying to subsidise a switch over from coal. For the rest of China’s cities, Beijing’s policies may look like an easy route to bluer skies. But, away from the centre of government, the pro-gas lobby may have a harder time getting its way.

Also at chinadialogue, Cui Zheng discusses nuclear energy’s possible resurgence following the publication of a new safety plan. The public opinion fallout from the Fukushima disaster, combined with a rising tide of environmental protests, may dissuade authorities from allowing a potentially destabilising revival ahead of this year’s leadership transition.

Since the days following Japan’s nuclear disaster in March last year, the number of countries to halt construction or operation of nuclear-power plants has grown, while the global nuclear industry has pinned its hopes on China coming back into the fray. Is it the case, then, as many believe, that construction will soon restart in China?

The launch of the new safety strategy has certainly had an impact on the industry. Four days after the plan was approved, investors pumped 400 million yuan (US$63 million) of funding into the Pengze nuclear plant in south-east China’s Jiangxi province, on which work stopped 15 months ago. CNNC Nuclear Power, a China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) subsidiary, passed a pre-listing environmental audit. Market analysts, meanwhile, have started recommending the purchase of nuclear shares.

[…] But at a State Council meeting on May 31, only the safety plan was passed. There was no sign of the development plan. One expert close to the nuclear policymaking process, who asked to remain anonymous, said it may still be some time before China sees its much touted nuclear spring. “For the sake of stability, nuclear construction is unlikely to get started soon,” the source said.

Still, China’s beleaguered nuclear industry may have other avenues to explore. According to The Guardian, talks are underway for the £35 billion construction of up to five power stations in the UK.