Posted by: bmeverett | November 28, 2009

China as used car salesman

Last week, the Fletcher School hosted the Sixth Annual Everett-Moomaw Climate Change Debate, addressing the prospects for the upcoming meetings in Copenhagen. You can watch part or all of the debate at
As always, my good friend Bill Moomaw was optimistic and enthusiastic about the prospects for a comprehensive and binding global treaty. Bill sees the developing countries getting on board with carbon dioxide limitations, stating “Right now China’s got a plan, about to make a big announcement. India’s got movement.” My response was, “Bill, you have got to be kidding!”
Well, China did make its big announcement. The New York Times headline was “China Joins U.S. in Pledge of Hard Targets on Emissions.” If you just read the headline, you’d assume that Bill was right, and I was wrong, but, as always, the devil is in the details. What China has agreed to do is to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45% versus the 2005 level by the year 2020. Carbon intensity means carbon emissions per dollar of economic output. So what exactly is China offering?
Let’s start by looking at history. According to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, in 1980, China’s carbon intensity was 6.73 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted per thousand dollars of GDP (in 2005 dollars). By 2007, the latest year for which data have been gathered, China’s carbon intensity had fallen to 2.22 tons of CO2 per thousand dollars of GDP. That’s a two-thirds reduction over 27 years or about 4% per year.
Why does that happen? First of all, as a country’s economy modernizes, it replaces old, inefficient industries with modern, more efficient versions. Second, the structure of the economy changes with a growing contribution from services and a declining contribution from heavy industry. Think of it this way. The richer you get, the less steel you consume, and the more you spend your money on education, travel, restaurants, entertainment, home renovation, artwork and other low-energy consumer goods.
The big decline in China’s carbon intensity is by no means unusual, nor is it likely to be temporary. In 1980, the US emitted only 0.82 tons of CO2 per thousand dollars of GDP, about one-eighth of the Chinese level, yet by 2007, US carbon intensity had fallen an additional 44% to 0.46 tons per $1000. In other words, this trend can continue for a very long time.
What would happen if China did nothing to reduce its carbon emissions, but simply continued to grow its economy on trend with carbon intensity declining 4% annually? The answer is that by 2020, their carbon intensity would have fallen by 42% compared to 2005 – exactly what they have just promised. In other words, China’s “binding commitment” is to keep doing exactly what they have planned to do all along, which is to get rich.
China’s announcement gives the Obama Administration some cover from the harsh realities of global politics. No government anywhere in the world has indicated its willingness to give up economic growth for greenhouse gas reduction. Governments continue to seek clever mechanisms that allow them to appear to be making emissions reductions without actually doing so. [See my last blog for a detailed discussion of Europe’s sorry record.] Some result will probably come from Copenhagen, but the Administration will keep its fingers crossed and hope that the electorate doesn’t look too closely at the scams and frauds that continue to flow from global climate negotiations.
Those of us who question the climate agenda are often referred to dismissively as “skeptics.” Just remember that the opposite of “skeptical” is “gullible.”


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